How much of a say will Labour have in Brexit negotiations?

Prime Minister Theresa May has acceded to a Labour demand for Parliamentary debate on Brexit plans, including a list of 170 questions. But her government won't hold a formal vote before invoking Article 50.

Peter Nicholls/Reuters
A Union flag on sale at a souvenir stall flies in the breeze opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain October 2, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls A Union flag on sale at a souvenir stall flies in the breeze opposite the Houses of Parliament in London. Britain's Labour party has demanded the answer to 170 questions before the trigger of the Brexit in March 2017. PETER NICHOLLS

Britain’s opposition Labour Party has submitted a list of 170 questions to the government, calling for Prime Minister Theresa May and the Tories to release details on how they envision the terms of the country’s departure from the European Union.

"If you are able to provide satisfactory answers to all these questions, just one per day from tomorrow until 31 March next year, it might give some confidence that the Government is entering the Article 50 negotiations with a clear plan," wrote Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer, secretaries from Labour’s shadow cabinet in a letter appended to the questions. March 31 is the government’s self-imposed deadline for invoking Article 50, which would formally trigger the withdrawal from the bloc.

"If not, it will reinforce the sense that the Government is instead blundering into this process without a clear endgame in mind, repeating exactly the same mistake that the previous Prime Minister made with his ‘renegotiation’ of Britain’s EU membership last year: working to an artificial, self-imposed timetable; with a flawed Plan A of what he wanted to achieve; and no Plan B whatsoever." 

The list and letter are part of Labour’s push to gain influence over the process. On Tuesday, Ms. May assented to a Labour motion for a "full and transparent debate" in Parliament over the government’s Brexit plans. 

But she stopped short of allowing a formal vote on its strategy before Article 50 is invoked, as some Labour lawmakers had called for. And Labour has accepted a government amendment to the motion stipulating that negotiations over Brexit be handled in a way that "respects the decision" made by voters in the referendum, without allowing Parliament to "undermine the [Britain's] negotiating position," reported the BBC.

"We've always said that parliament has an important role to play," May's spokeswoman told Reuters on Wednesday. "But we also believe this should be done in a way that respects the decision of the people of the UK.... There will not be a vote on triggering Article 50."

Labour's acceptance of the government's amendment would seem to dash the last hopes of those who have called for a do-over on the referendum. In June, the Christian Science Monitor's Jason Thomson wrote that opponents of the Leave campaign had circulated an online petition calling on the government to hold another referendum, rapidly gathering more than 2 million signatures.

But the Brexit vote, paired with a referendum held this month with Colombian voters, who shot down a peace accord with the FARC rebels that was four years in the making and widely praised as a model for transitional justice, has helped cast doubt on the usefulness of plebiscites as a tool for good governance, as the Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana and Emily Wright noted:

[W]hile the votes are often heralded as the purest form of democracy, critics have panned them as politicking that reduces complex nuances into yes or no answers – posing risks to leaders who may underestimate the potentially monumental repercussions, especially if a vote does not go their way.

“On peace, on independence, on issues that are irreversible in some ways, I think it is reasonable that we go ask the people,” says Matt Qvortrup, a professor of political science at Coventry University and editor of the book “Referendums around the World.”

But, he says, “the most important thing is that the people are not animals to be herded around” – meaning that leaders need to time referendums carefully, prepare the populace, and not be overly dependent on the tool.

This article contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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