Labour MPs turn on former PM
Blair backlash after call to ‘rise up’ against hard Brexit
In his first comments following the referendum last June, the former Prime Minister said Prime Minister Theresa May’s policy had to be challenged and the British people had a right to “change their mind”.
But some Labour colleagues regretted his call, arguing that it edged the party against the will of the British people who voted to leave the European Union. It also dded to the existing divisions in the party ahead of crucial by-elections.
Some of the 47 Labour MPs who opposed Brexit welcomed his speech to an Open Britain rally, and he even drew praise from Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
Among those unhappy with his address was Jenny Chapman, a shadow Brexit minister, who said it “won’t help” the party to retain seats in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland. In both it has been stressing its support for triggering Article 50 to release Britain from the EU.
Caroline Flint, a former minister under Mr Blair, described his comments as “bad advice” and said Labour should respect the referendum vote.
Mr Blair said in his speech on Friday that the road being taken by Downing Street was not simply ‘hard Brexit,’ but “Brexit at any cost”.
He said: “The people voted without knowledge of the terms of Brexit. As these terms become clear, it is their right to change their mind. Our mission is to persuade them to do so.
“This is not the time for retreat, indifference or despair, but the time to rise up in defence of what we believe.”
After overcoming potential legal and parliamentary banana skins, Mrs May is expected to begin the legal process of leaving the European Union next month.
She wants a clean break from the bloc, which means Britain having no access to the single market or the customs union.
Mr Blair said he was setting in train plans to look at the Brexit question but he stopped short of calling for a second EU referendum.
Nigel Farage, the former UKIP leader, was scathing about Mr Blair’s comments, saying: “Blair is yesterday’s man. He clearly hasn’t grasped that, if that referendum was held tomorrow, the margin would be at least three times bigger.”
Once Mrs May formally triggers exit negotiations next month, her government argues that there will be no legal way to stop the countdown to withdrawal.
Mr Blair’s comments were seen to give some comfort to the Scottish independence lobby, by suggesting their case is “much more credible” after the Brexit vote. But he confirmed that he did not support the break-up of the UK.
“Let me be very clear. I want Scotland to remain in the UK. Even if Brexit goes ahead I am still in favour of Scotland remaining in the UK,” he said.
“Scotland’s single market with England is of far greater importance to it economically than Scotland’s interaction with the rest of Europe.
“However, I am afraid as we said during the referendum campaign – unlike the other side we don’t want to unsay the things we said during the course of that campaign. So when myself and John Major warned this would be a threat to the UK we meant it. And it’s true. You can see that by the referendum coming back on the agenda.”
Scottish Labour Westminster spokesman Ian Murray said: “Tony Blair is right to highlight the utter mess the Tories are making of Brexit. People did not vote to make themselves poorer, but that is exactly what will happen if Theresa May gets her way.
“The Tory Brexit chaos has certainly given the SNP the excuse it was looking for to stoke up more grievance. But the reality is that the economic case for separation is even worse now than when the people of Scotland rejected it in 2014.”
SNP Europe spokesperson Stephen Gethins said: “The case for independence is more compelling than ever, and will only become even more so when the full impact of a Tory hard Brexit with its economic and other consequences starts to become clear.
“Tony Blair’s comments simply reflect the reality that the independence debate now is fundamentally different to the one in 2014 – and the Tories’ threat of a hard Brexit at any cost to Scotland is only going to see support for an independent Scotland rise further still.”
Meanwhile, a leaked memo has suggested the EU is ready to consider a differentiated Brexit deal that would keep Scotland in the single market.
An internal letter by the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs, which will form the basis of the parliament’s negotiating position, said that the EU “should be prepared” to deal with Scotland.
It reads: “There are discussions in those territories [Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar] regarding the possibility of obtaining differentiated status as compared to the rest of the UK in the withdrawal process.
“This would point to a possible differentiated territorial application of EU law. Moreover, there is a call from some sectors of those territories to listen to and accommodate the will of the majority of citizens of those territories to remain in the EU.
“Should such issues be raised during negotiations, the institutions should be prepared for dealing with them from an EU law point of view.”
The memo continues: “Regarding Scotland in particular, the issue relates in particular to the different positions of that devolved territory and of the UK Government regarding the participation in the single market as well as their approach to the free movement of citizens. The questions on whether differentiations could be envisaged in the current constitutional and institutional set up of the Union should thus be addressed.”
SNP MSP Joan McAlpine said: “This paper demolishes any notion that the EU is not prepared to look at a deal to keep Scotland in the single market – on the contrary, it shows just how open Brussels is to the prospect.
“Having met with members of the committee recently, I was very impressed with their knowledge of Scotland and the seriousness with which they were taking the situation.
“The Scottish Government have already compromised with the proposals which have been published, and the Tories should not match that compromise by agreeing to take forward such a plan.
“But if the Tories are determined to drag Scotland out of the single market against our will, it is patently clear that Scotland already fulfils all of the criteria to join the EU as an independent country.
“There remains only one significant risk to Scotland’s relationship with Europe – that’s Theresa May’s dogged commitment to a Tory Hard Brexit, which will damage our economy, drag us out of a single market eight times larger than the UK’s and cost 80,000 Scottish jobs.”