London’s MPs have the power to change the course of Brexit – The Guardian
Londoners, arise! Not since Cromwell’s civil war has the capital been in a stronger position to hold parliament to ransom. But does it know it? Already Irish and Scottish MPs are marching on the capital, laying down terms for supporting Theresa May’s crippled regime as it embarks on the Brexit adventure. London is far more powerful. It was for remain, and its prosperity depends on a “soft” Brexit. Can it find its muscle?
Will London survive as a financial centre after Brexit?
Greater London has 73 MPs to Scotland’s 59 and Northern Ireland’s 18. Within these regions, even London’s dwindling band of Tory MPs can muster 21, against just 13 Tories in Scotland and 10 possible Tory allies in the DUP. This means London’s Tories can hamstring May’s government more effectively than either the DUP or the Scots. In league with London’s Labour and Lib Dem MPs, they would enjoy a veto.
In the past, London has been a notoriously silent lobby in parliament. Its MPs seem almost guilty at being showered with favoured subsidies and vanity projects, and so should not overplay their hand. But needs must, and today they are more urgent. The capital’s prosperity is crucial to the national economy. London raises a third of all UK tax revenue, with the south-east region as a whole transferring some £50bn a year to the rest of the UK. Every million by which that is reduced by the vagaries of Brexit is a million off the NHS, a million in more austerity for the rest of the country.
Three decades in which regional policy has been tilted towards the south-east may have been economically damaging, but that is history. Just now, London’s key industries of finance, tourism and leisure face not just a possible loss of business but, at best, a soaring cost of their crucial input, labour.
A staggering 40% of London’s workforce comes from overseas. Some firms in the hospitality sector depend 90% on migrant labour, as does half of London’s care of the elderly. A Brexit clamp on migration promises a nightmare for London and the Treasury. Perhaps there was something in Project Fear after all.
As for the leavers’ reply, that employers should simply “retrain homegrown workers”, they are on a distant planet. London unemployment is at rock bottom. If May were to stifle London’s mass inward migration of some 100,000 people a year, it would impose a savage economic sanction on the capital. It would also suck the provinces dry of talent. London is the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Slamming shut its door is not so much senseless as impossible.
London’s MPs, acting collectively, are in pole position to impose sanity on May’s negotiators. Will they do so? Ulster MPs are reportedly demanding guarantees of an open border with the south. What about London’s “border” with Paris, Brussels, Berlin? Scotland is demanding the retention of some sort of customs union. What about a financial services “union” for London? East Anglian MPs are looking for dispensation for seasonal harvesters. What about London’s seasonal tourism?
Whatever spin is applied to last week’s election, the collapse of Ukip and the lack of voter support for May suggest that Britons are ever more hesitant about Brexit’s implementation. The election has thrown debate into flux. “Four freedoms” are said to underpin Europe’s open market, the movement of goods, capital, services and labour. Few people want a tariff wall with the EU, while the capital market will always be open and the service market opaque.
Only labour is at issue, with its coded implication that all of Europe is “one community”. But while most Brexiters want to “bring back control” over immigration, they tend to feel more strongly in the general than the particular. Ask farmers about fruit-pickers, house-builders about bricklayers, and care homes about cleaners, and the special pleading starts. London’s universities want free access for foreign students and researchers. Its hospitals and clinics could not survive without a global staff supply. Tour operators are horrified at having to negotiate separate visas for the UK and for the rest of Europe.
At this point, halfway-house options come into play. Despite its compromise on all the freedoms, the Norway option is favourite. It offers membership of a European economic area, with features of single markets, customs unions and “long-term transitional arrangements”. Somewhere behind the verbiage about strategy and tactics, blowing hard and soft, respecting the leave referendum while keeping a sensible trading relationship with Europe has to be resolved. There will be howls, but it must be done.
London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, his status enhanced by Labour’s impressive showing in London, should be in a huddle with MPs of all parties to ponder their leverage. They have a single market to defend. Whether they might conceive a “London working visa”, as do some cities in Canada, is hard to imagine. But London must be granted a visa waiver of sorts for essential workers. At what point do waivers become an open border? California is refusing to enforce Trump’s proposed migrant expulsions. Might it come to that in London?
Labour’s win in Kensington reflects the area’s huge disparities of wealth | Rachel Obordo
The coming months will be dominated not just by Brexitology but by a hung parliament’s customary orgy of indulgences. In the race to the budgetary trough – of roads, bridges, schools and hospitals – all can take part. But London’s pitch should not be for money, of which it has masses. It should pitch for power.
Local devolution was the unfinished business of the Cameron administration. Last year Khan’s finance commission produced a number of tax changes and power shifts, replicating and extending those already granted to Manchester. These include delegating to London its business rates and other property taxes. The mayor should demand control over suburban rail transport, and get the same deal as Manchester for an integrated health service. Hung parliaments are a case of speak now, or for ever hold your peace.
Special-interest pleading is not an attractive feature of democratic politics. But London, post-Brexit, needs autonomy-lite. It needs to be free to make money for itself and for Britain. The onus is on London’s 21 Tory MPs to achieve it. Can they imitate Scotland, find their inner Ruth Davidson, and show some backbone?