The Welsh Government has officially shifted its position on Brexit. It will now primarily argue for the UK to stay in the EU, rather than for its previous proposals for leaving with a deal on the single market and customs union which it said would protect Welsh jobs, prosperity and security.
Brexit minister Jeremy Miles told AMs that it was clear that there was no appetite in the Conservative party at Westminster for the kind of Brexit deal that the Welsh Government might have found acceptable.
We sought to reconcile the result of the 2016 referendum with the least damaging kind of Brexit but that effort has now reached the end of the road. The European elections have shown that the electorate remains profoundly divided – and indeed the split has widened with many of those who voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum now supporting no deal, and many, probably a majority wanting us to remain within the EU. Faced by this sort of binary choice ... we as a Government must recognise these realities and change course. In doing so, we make no apology for the policy which we and Plaid Cymru put forward in January 2017. It was an honest attempt to articulate a way of respecting the referendum result while not trashing the economy, recognising that the economic fall-out from a hard Brexit would only intensify, rather than solve, the problems caused by austerity. So, as a Government we will now campaign to remain in the EU. And to make that happen, Parliament should now show the courage to admit it is deadlocked and legislate for a referendum, with remain on the ballot paper. We have been calling for months for the Government to make preparations in case a referendum should be necessary: now Parliament must make sure it happens. Let me be completely clear. Any deal will require a new mandate from the electorate: and leaving without a deal must require one also. And - of course - any referendum must include remaining in the EU as an option. We have always argued that holding a further referendum risks reinforcing divisions, but the European elections have shown that any belief that the country has come together is wholly illusory. And of course, there is the chance that a second referendum might lead to the same result as the first. But we will campaign to remain, working with those within this chamber and outside who share that view.
In shifting position, Jeremy Miles formally abandoned the White Paper agreed with Plaid Cymru 'Securing Wales' Future', which envisaged Britain leaving the EU. He argued that since Adam Price replaced Leanne Wood as Plaid's leader that party had already moved on.
Ninety per cent of Conservative MPs have always, consistently voted for that withdrawal deal, unlike almost 100 per cent of the Labour MPs who have voted against. So, you've had it within your gift as a party to deliver a Brexit with a deal that honours the outcome of the referendum result, and I think many people will find it pretty extraordinary that [the Welsh Government's announcement comes] in the wake of the EU election results, which saw a third of the vote—including some our vote, much of it your vote too—drift to the Brexit Party, which clearly wants to simply deliver Brexit.
The Brexit Party's leader in the Assembly, Mark Reckless, also condemned the change of course.
I find this insouciance absolutely extraordinary. People who aren't in his bubble listen to him say that there needs to be a referendum and that, 'Of course, any referendum must include remaining in the EU as an option', as if we haven't had a referendum less than three years ago, which he promised to respect the result of but now is doing the opposite. I mean, he argues a bit with Plaid Cymru about which went back on what they promised earlier, but the fact is that they both promised to respect the referendum result, and both of them don't respect the referendum result and are telling people they need to vote again, as if that will solve divisions in our society. We took a decision; you refuse to implement it. Why, if you ask people to vote again, would they expect you to implement it any more next time than you have this time?
Plaid Cymru welcomed the change of policy.
I’m pleased to welcome the fact that the Welsh Government has changed its policy. It’s not a reaffirmation, as the First Minister said previously; it is a change of policy on the need for a referendum, in order to put the final say on our relationship with the European Union in the hands of the people. I’m not sure how many times we’ve discussed this issue in this Chamber, with the Government insisting that a sensible Brexit remains possible. But at least now, thanks to the European elections, perhaps, you have now come to the conclusion that Plaid Cymru came to many moons ago, that a referendum is the only way of resolving the Brexit dilemma.
Plaid Cymru has tabled a motion for AMs to debate tomorrow, calling on the Assembly to declare its unequivocal support for a confirmatory referendum on any proposal by the next Prime Minister to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union, with remain on the ballot paper. The Welsh Government now looks likely to back that motion.