Whether you voted Leave or Remain back in 2016, there is one thing we can all agree on: the psychodrama that is Brexit has gone on long enough and it needs to be brought to a conclusion, one way or another.
As an MP I feel this as acutely as anyone. It is not just that arguments over Brexit have dominated debate in Parliament and beyond. The issue has created an all-pervasive atmosphere that is profoundly debilitating. A colleague of mine recently compared it to the red weed in the book The War of the Worlds – something that spreads over everything, smothering and clogging the flow of our political life.
And it goes well beyond Parliament and Westminster. Brexit is an issue that has divided families, friends and communities. It is being used as an excuse for abuse on social media and elsewhere, so vitriolic that it goes beyond anything like reasoned debate. In some cases it even involves threats of violence.
Whatever the issue, though, there is in reality no excuse for abuse and threats. All of us must be clear about that. But it all still underlines the importance of sorting out Brexit.
Why No Deal would not be “getting on with it” but the start of a new phase of chaos
So how does it help sort out Brexit for Parliament last week to have passed a law stopping Boris Johnson going ahead with a No Deal Brexit on 31st October? The reason is that, despite what the Prime Minister may claim, leaving the European Union without a Deal cannot bring the issue to a conclusion. Why? Because No Deal would not be the end of the Brexit psychodrama, but the start of a new and even more chaotic phase of it. Analysis after analysis has pointed to the damage that No Deal will do – from the impact on food supplies and medicines, to thousands of jobs being lost as vital supply chains are disrupted in industries, across the Midlands and elsewhere, which depend on frictionless trade with the EU. It’s also because No Deal means what it says. It means no transitional arrangements to manage our exit. It means we would still owe the EU billions of pounds from our existing commitments that we would be legally obliged to pay. It would mean new arrangements from scratch for the 46 per cent of British exports that go to the EU – still our largest trading partner.
In other words, all the things that would need to be covered in a Brexit Deal would not disappear. They would still need to be sorted. The difference is that we would be trying to do so in an environment of chaos. Then there’s the issue of how we would sort out our trade arrangements with the rest of the world – including most of the 70 countries where the preferential trade deals we currently have as a member of the EU would need to be replaced. And what of the USA? Donald Trump’s stated enthusiasm for a post-Brexit deal with the UK appears to be grounded on an assumption that it would put America first, not the interests of the UK, with all the dangers that would pose for the safety standards of food imported to the UK and for predatory bids for parts of our NHS.
And, of course, there is Northern Ireland, where the two decades of peace achieved since the Good Friday Agreement have been cemented by the absence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Boris Johnson claims that No Deal would not bring back that hard border. But after Brexit the Republic would remain in the EU, whereas Northern Ireland would not. Without a deal that covers how goods move from between the two, a border is inevitable.
Sometimes people describe the prospect of No Deal as Britain going over a cliff edge. One business figure probably described it more accurately last week as our jumping into a swamp.
Why Boris Johnson cannot be trusted
Unfortunately, the events of the past week have not only shown the Prime Minister unwilling to face up to these realities. Instead his actions have also confirmed that he is someone interested only in himself, his position and getting his way.
There was no clearer example of this that when he booted out 21 senior members of his own party who did not oppose the UK reaching a Brexit deal, but who were not prepared to take the UK into the No Deal swamp. His own brother has resigned from Government and over the weekend his Work and Pensions Secretary resigned too, unable to remain associated with the damage Boris Johnson is doing to the reputation and traditions of the Conservative Party.
The truth is that Boris Johnson cannot be trusted. In the summer he said he would not try to suspend Parliament to try to get his way on Brexit, but he is doing just that this week. Despite spiralling the UK towards no deal, he also claims to be deep in negotiations that will deliver a “great Brexit deal” by the time EU heads of Government meet on 17th October. But he persistently refuses to set out what that deal would consist of and none of those with whom he claims to be negotiating have yet seen any proposals from him.
Now he is demanding a snap election to take place before that meeting to avoid having to deliver on his claims in practice. Parliament has said no. There is a saying that you should own the mess you create and be accountable for it. That should apply to Prime Ministers too.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to see the back of Boris Johnson and the end of 10 years of Conservative-led Government. Every week scores of people contact me for advice and representation. Some are facing homelessness. Some are having to turn to foodbanks to make ends meet. Some have vulnerable relatives who are unable to get the social care they need. Others are victims of crimes for which nobody is arrested. So many of the problems that people bring to me are caused or made worse by the cuts and other policies of the recent Government. Along with my team, I will always do my best to help. But I also know so much more could be done if there is a change of Government.
So I want a General Election to address those issues – but not one whose timing allows Boris Johnson off the hook or which takes place before our country is secure from the chaos of No Deal on 31st October.
A General Election does not sort out Brexit – but a People’s Vote can do so
Going back to where I started this article, a General Election also does not sort out Brexit – whatever its timing. General Elections are about choosing between different parties’ programmes for Government as a whole and about electing as MPs people who can be trusted to work hard for their constituents both locally and in Parliament. Of course, the way forward that different parties offer on Brexit is an important part of all this, but elections are about a lot more too.
We know too that views on Brexit do not divide neatly along party lines – either in Parliament or amongst voters. In 2016 the country voted to leave the EU. It was a slim majority but a majority nonetheless. I have always been straight about my position. I voted Remain and I still believe that leaving the EU is a profound mistake for our country. But as an MP I respected the result of the referendum when I voted to trigger Article 50 to open the negotiations for Britain’s departure from the EU.
The issue since then has always been about whether we leave on terms that do not do serious damage to our country and to the life-chances of the people I am elected to represent. I hope in this article I have explained why I believe a No Deal Brexit must be ruled out. But even if we do so, there is still the question of what a Brexit deal should include. I did not believe that the deal negotiated by Theresa May was right for our country and that is why I opposed it in Parliament, speaking and voting for a range of amendments that I believe would have improved that deal. I have reported back on all these matters in regular online updates for constituents over the past three years.
All the evidence suggests that the country is divided both on the terms of the Brexit deal on offer, as well as on Brexit itself. Now that there is greater clarity on what the terms of Brexit would involve in practice is there still a majority to leave the EU, or has that knowledge now created a majority the other way? I don’t know the answer to that question and, in truth, nobody else does either.
If we are going to bring the deadlock to an end and move on, however, it is a question that must be answered. That is why I believe the British people should be given the final say on any deal through another referendum. If the deal negotiated by Mrs May – or some modification of it – remains the only one on the table, people should be empowered to give their verdict on that. The same goes for any deal recommended by Boris Johnson if – despite all the evidence to the contrary – he does deliver on his promise to negotiate one. If there is a new deal negotiated by someone who replaces Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, the people should equally be given the final say on that too. Whichever one it is, the difference between this referendum and the last one is that while in 2016 the argument was between competing projections of what Brexit might look like, this time the terms of Brexit will be known and the choice will be clear: a choice to leave on those terms or to remain a member of the EU.
My vote in that referendum will be worth no more nor less than anyone else’s. At the end of it some of us will be pleased and some of us will be disappointed. But at least we will have reached a conclusion that will let us move on as a country.