I write this blog just a few days after the Article 50 timetable governing Britain’s exit from the EU has been extended until 31st October to give more time to break the deadlock in Parliament about how to go forward.
As with all things Brexit-related the reaction has been mixed, to say the least. What people on all sides of the argument share however, is a huge sense of frustration that that things are apparently no nearer resolution than they were several months ago. Whether you blame Theresa May for refusing to compromise after repeated defeats of her proposed Brexit deal, or you think the fault lies elsewhere, this whole episode has laid bare some real problems with the way politics operates in this country. The traditional relationship between Government and Parliament is built on a mind-set in which Ministers try to dictate policies to Parliament, with Parliament splitting along Party lines to either endorse or oppose what the Government wants to do. Moreover, the traditional assumption is that the Government of the day will command a majority in the House of Commons, enabling it to have its way, with the opposition noisy but ultimately powerless. The problem is that none of that reflects the reality of today. No party won a majority of seats at last General Election and Theresa May leads a minority administration. And Brexit is an issue on which opinion is divided, within Parties as well as between them. In the case of the Conservatives divisions are at their deepest, with conflicting attitudes to Europe being the fault line that has undermined every Conservative leader for more than three decades.
But it’s not just about the Conservatives. Parliament as a whole has always found it much easier to either endorse or oppose what the government of the day is doing than to create the alliances necessary to shape events for itself, distinguishing bottom line points of principle from areas where compromise should be possible to chart a way forward.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope. So sharply has Brexit exposed problems in our political system that recent weeks have seen a number of us working cross party to do things differently. Some of those discussions attempted to build consensus ahead of a series of “Indicative Votes” held before Easter. Although these votes did not yield a majority for any single proposal, there were still hopeful signs of a growing understanding between large numbers of MPs across different parties – on issues such as UK remaining in a customs union with the EU, on our future relationship with the single market (sometimes called the “Norway Plus option”) and on the possibility of a confirmatory public vote on any deal agreed with the EU. The main focus of these efforts, however, has been to guard against Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal – whether by design or accident.
Ruling Out No Deal
Some suggest that Britain has nothing to fear from a No Deal Brexit – giving the impression that somehow it would be like carrying on as we are now, but outside the EU. Some even go so far as to suggest that the country voted for a No Deal Brexit in the 2016 referendum. The reality is different. The referendum produced a majority to leave the EU. It was silent on how we should do so. The major organisations campaigning for Leave at the time told people that a deal would not only be likely but that it would be easy to achieve. However misleading that advice may have been, it was not a question that voters were asked to answer in the referendum itself. The choice was Leave or Remain, not the kind of withdrawal agreement we should seek to negotiate or whether we should consider leaving without a deal.
Since then however, the warnings about the consequences of a No Deal Brexit have been stark and widespread. Both unions and industrialists have warned about the catastrophic impact that no deal would have on jobs, with customs checks and delays ant the channel ports wreaking havoc in the supply chains of automotive and other manufacturing industries. Pharmacists have warned of disruption to cross channel supplies of medicines. Farmers have warned of new tariffs causing rising food prices and police chiefs have expressed concern about the impact on crime fighting of the UK losing access to European security networks.
Some have called these warnings “Project Fear” but they are not. They are about facing up to Project Reality. Nearly three years ago, my constituency voted by a clear margin to leave the EU. Whatever my personal views, as their Member of Parliament I felt it was my responsibility to reflect that result when Parliament was asked to trigger Article 50 at the start of 2017. But it is also my responsibility to oppose courses of action that I believe would be bad for the area I represent and which would make my constituents poorer. That is why I oppose a no deal Brexit.
While progress has been made on ruling out a No Deal Brexit, as I write this article, here is still deadlock over the shape of any Brexit deal to be done and how any agreed deal should be approved. There is some good news that discussions to try to identify an agreed way forward are continuing between Mrs May’s government and Labour as the main opposition party. But will they produce an agreement? I hope so but I am not holding my breath. Quite apart from Theresa May’s disagreements with many in her own party, all the signs are that she also retains profound differences with Labour, on key issues such as whether the UK should remain in a customs union with the EU, on our relationship to European Single Market, and on the level of guarantees which should be given to protect employee rights and environmental protections.
Giving the People the Final Say and Rejecting the Politics of Hate
So what if no agreement proves possible? At the end of last year, I wrote in the Birmingham Mail that, faced with a continuing log jam in Parliament, the only way to break the deadlock may be to put the issue back to the people to decide through another referendum. After all, Theresa May has insisted for months that her withdrawal agreement is the only deal that has actually been agreed with the EU and that it is therefore the “only game in town” to deliver Brexit. If she is right about that, there is a powerful argument for saying that the British people, not just politicians, should have the final say – the right to accept or reject the deal with the alternative of remaining in the EU.
But it is not just politicians who are divided over Brexit. It is the British people too. That won’t be news to nobody. At 52% to 48%, the 2016 referendum was very close. Some polls suggest that a referendum today might produce a different result but, whichever way they call it, all of them predict that it would still be tight.
Whichever side of the fence they are on, most people who I talk to about Brexit acknowledge that others may have opinions different from their own and that all views should be treated with respect. Unfortunately, not everybody takes that view, and an ugly atmosphere of hostility has been all too frequently on display in recent weeks – encouraged by Far-Right demagogues and glossed over by other political figures who, frankly, should know better. I am not alone in having been on the receiving end of social media posts calling me traitor to my country simply because I have a different point of view to the person doing the posting. For some of my colleagues in Parliament, it has gone beyond insults to threats of violence.
All of us have a duty to heed the warning signs here. It was during the last referendum that my colleague, Jo Cox, was murdered by a Far-Right fanatic. This year another Far-Right activist was jailed for planning to murder another of my colleagues, Rosie Cooper MP. And it is not just politicians who are under threat. We can see from our own history and events in other countries that, once the politics of hate and intimidation are on the march, the consequences can be murderous against people simply because of their colour, their religion or who they are.
Whatever our differing views on Brexit, all of us have a common interest in calling out those who peddle the politics of hate. But we also have to recognise that the differences most of us have on either side of the Brexit debate are real and sincerely held. Sometimes, they go deeper than Brexit itself, reflecting a range of concerns about some of the ways in which society works and those where it doesn’t work; about the kind of future we are leaving for our children and grandchildren. Rightly or wrongly, Brexit has become the issue on which those differences are now being given expression.
The arguments over Brexit have gone on long enough and need to be brought to a conclusion – whether through breaking the deadlock in Parliament, through another referendum, or both.
But, however Brexit itself is resolved, we will still need to foster a new dialogue in this country that brings people together rather than deepens division. And our political system has to do a better job at addressing people’s hopes and fears for the future than any of us have managed so far.