The referendum on EU membership was a dangerous tactic in a bloody Tory party faction fight. Cameron launched it to defeat the Brexiteers in his party once and for all, but instead they won.
The crisis that is now resulting is only at its beginning, not least because Cameron had not looked beyond the referendum vote. Blithely failing to consider what would happen if the Brexiteers won, there was no discussion about what the alternatives to EU membership might be; no consideration of whether Brexit meant just leaving the EU, or leaving the single market as well. And the real choices on this were never presented to the electorate; not because Cameron and co didn’t know what they were, but because they made so many concessions to the case against free movement and the anti-immigration lobby that they couldn’t make any kind of sensible case for anything.
As a result Britain is about to embark on Brexit negotiations where it is not clear what end result the negotiators are even looking for. In particular the question of whether the UK intends to leave the single market was not asked and not voted on in the referendum. So the Tories now are going to lead exit talks without a clear position on this. Leaving the single market would have devastating results for the British economy.
The Tories have already shown themselves utterly irresponsible, subordinating the interests of the mass of the population to an internal fight in the Tory party, and they cannot be trusted with the negotiations that will now follow with the EU.
Theresa May has put the Brexiteers – Boris Johnson, David Davies and Liam Fox – in charge of the Brexit negotiations. This is undoubtedly because May wants them to have to carry the can if, or more accurately when, the talks reveal that access to the single market includes accepting all the EU regulations allowing the free movement of goods, services, capital, firms and workers, as well as paying a subsidy to the EU at least as great as the one already paid but with less in return.
The balance of forces on the EU question in the new Tory Cabinet has only marginally shifted in favour of the Brexit supporters. May and her key lieutenants were for Remain. The Brexiteers are still in a minority in the Cabinet and among Tory MPs, although a majority in the Tory membership.
Given how irresponsible the Tories have already shown themselves to be – especially the triumvirate in charge of the Brexit talks – they may abandon even staying in the single market rather than face the inevitable howls of rage from within the Tory membership when the terms are revealed.
The assumption has to be that it is the Tories that will see through these exit negotiations, as it is clear there is no current intention to call an early General Election. The Tories would only call one if they were certain of winning. It is possible that the old and deep divisions inside the Tories on this matter could be re-opened during the negotiations and a General Election might be posed. But outside this remote possibility, the Tory party and its ministers will be responsible for the negotiations of the terms of any Brexit deal.
While there are likely to be deep divisions in the Tories over staying in the single market or not, they will certainly not divide over whether workers’ rights, environmental protection, maternity rights, and such issues are included in any deal. As the Tories will not split on such issues it means the negotiators cannot be held to account in parliament on such matters because the Tories have a majority.
Labour, uniting with other progressive political forces, must of course nonetheless intervene in the process in order to try to secure the best possible outcome, including working with the SNP, Greens and others in Parliament who agree.
But in the final analysis accountability and pressure can only be ensured if a popular vote on the terms the Tories propose for exit is guaranteed. Alongside holding the Tories to task over what they propose to concede or otherwise during the negotiations, this means that whatever is the final outcome must be subjected to a further vote.
As every trade union negotiator understands, in any deal with employers the first issue is to arrive at terms, the second is to put the proposed terms to the membership to see if they are agreed.
The outcome of the Brexit negotiations has much wider impact on all workers and the whole of society than the overwhelming majority of trade union negotiations. Plus it is self-evident the Tories cannot be trusted to negotiate on our behalf. So the population should get to vote on the Brexit terms when they are known.
There must be a referendum on the exit terms agreed between the government and the EU.