Labour will not block article 50, says Tom Watson. Tom Watson next leader of the Labour Party?
Deputy leader says ‘British people have spoken’ and Labour will not hold up process of leaving EU
Labour will not block the triggering of article 50, which begins the formal process of Britain leaving the EU, and will instead seek to put pressure on Theresa May to bring more detailed negotiating terms to the House of Commons, Tom Watson has said.
Everybody is now wondering, could Tom Watson be the natural choice for the next leader of the Labour Party?
The (present) “Labour leader” Jeremy Corbyn, appeared to suggest in an interview with the Sunday Mirror that his party would be prepared to vote against the government invoking article 50 unless May signed up to his Brexit “bottom lines”, including pressing for full access to the single market and safeguarding workers’ rights.
But appearing on Pienaar’s Politics on BBC Radio 5 live, Watson, the deputy Labour leader, clarified the party’s position, saying: “No, we’re not going to hold this up. The British people have spoken and article 50 will be triggered when it comes to Westminster.
“I think it’s important, the country needs to hear this, because I think most people think that that court judgment meant that the referendum result has fallen. It hasn’t, it will go through. We want Theresa May to be accountable to parliament, but the people have spoken and we respect that decision.”
Corbyn later echoed Watson’s assurances.
Labour MPs in Brexit-leaning constituencies are nervous about the party adopting any position that appears to be one of seeking to keep Britain in the EU. But unless the party is willing to block the triggering of article 50, it is unclear how Labour can exert influence over the process.
The prime minister has reassured European leaders that she plans to stick to her self-imposed deadline of triggering article 50 by the end of March.
Corbyn had told the Sunday Mirror: “Sorry, but we live in a democracy and the government has to be responsive to parliament. It’s not my timetable, so it’s up to her to respond.”
The Scottish National party and the Liberal Democrats are thought to be willing to vote down any legislation on article 50 unless they receive reassurances. Added to Corbyn’s tough language, this suggests the government could be defeated, triggering an early election, which Corbyn said he would welcome. “It would give us the chance to put before the British people an alternative economic strategy for this country,” he said.
Senior Labour sources insisted he had only intended to reiterate the party’s previously agreed position on Brexit. “We have always been clear that we will not block article 50. What we are talking about is the government bringing its negotiating terms to parliament. We will maintain that clear distinction,” a source said.
The interview, which came after Corbyn refused to answer questions about a potential early general election from an ITV reporter earlier in the day, sowed confusion about Labour’s Brexit strategy, which had appeared clearer since a shadow Brexit team led by Keir Starmer was appointed last month.
The government is planning to appeal against Thursday’s high court judgment, which ruled that it would be illegal for the government to trigger article 50 without consulting parliament.
The Brexit secretary, David Davis, said the judgment appeared to imply that the government would have to bring a bill before both houses of parliament, and all opposition parties, as well as remain-leaning Conservatives, were considering how they would use the extra leverage that could give them.
May, who is flying to India for a trade visit in an effort to show that Britain can strike lucrative deals outside the EU, has said she believes she is upholding a point of principle. There was a furious public backlash against the judgment, which some saw as frustrating the will of the people.
The prime minister wrote in the Sunday Telegraph: “Parliament voted to put the decision about our membership of the EU in the hands of the British people. The people made their choice, and did so decisively. It is the responsibility of the government to get on with the job and to carry out their instruction in full. MPs and peers who regret the referendum result need to accept what the people decided.”
On Saturday, the justice secretary, Liz Truss, issued a statement upholding the independence of the judiciary after some newspaper headlines referred to the high court judges who delivered the verdict as “enemies of the people”.