For trade unions, the situation is especially worrying because of the precarious position of working rights in this country. Just before Christmas, it was reported that senior ministers including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove had launched a plot to scrap the working time regulations.
This is a vital piece of European legislation, that unions campaigned for, which improved paid holiday rights for seven million workers, including nearly five million women. Without it, bad bosses would be able to force their staff to work long hours week in, week out, with even less free time for family life. Lunch breaks, rest breaks and other health and safety protection would also be threatened.
In other words, scrapping these regulations would herald a straight-up attack on our rights at work – of the kind that Leave campaigners had promised would never happen.
And while Theresa May attempted to shut down the story, repeating her promise that workers’ rights would be “maintained and enhanced” after Brexit, she didn’t explicitly rule out scrapping the regulations.
What’s more, given her reluctance – or inability – to stand up to her ministers, how can she guarantee that the hard Brexiteers won’t win the day?
Trade unions have consistently argued that workers’ rights after Brexit must be guaranteed by the strongest possible legal protections to ensure that workers here don’t fall behind their counterparts in Europe. Working people want certainty and security too. Yes, our government has the sovereign right to improve protection at work but a deal with the EU must guarantee that all workers should enjoy the same safety net of minimum standards.
And having tested all the available options for a trade deal against that requirement, our conclusion is clear. After we leave the EU, staying in the single market is currently the only realistic option that provides a long-term guarantee for our rights at work, and protects jobs too.
So it’s worrying that the prime minister has retained a cabinet packed with individuals who are explicitly hostile to workers’ rights. And that the Department for Exiting the EU, despite getting a new minister, still doesn’t seem to think working rights are a priority.
The secretary of state, for example, has said that the Canada-EU trade deal (CETA) provides a perfect starting point for the next round of negotiations. And Liam Fox has ruled out retaining membership of the customs union that gives us trade agreements with over 60 countries outside the EU, but wants to keep open the option of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
In reality, CETA and the TPP are terrible deals that put big corporations and foreign investors ahead of ordinary working people. Such agreements provide no guarantee for hard-won rights like equal pay for women, fair redundancies, time off for family emergencies and equal rights for part-time, fixed-term and agency workers.
While we know that the single market and the customs union aren’t perfect, the TUC’s analysis clearly shows that they are far better for workers’ jobs and rights than any other trade models. If the prime minister is serious about protecting and enhancing workers’ rights, then she should put all options back on the table in the next round of negotiations.
Her hard Brexiteer ministers might not like it – but working people must not pay the price of their ambitions.