Articles about ‘Brexit’
The Prime Minister’s bid to call a snap General Election just before Christmas will not sort out Brexit as he claims and the way he is going about it is bad for democracy.
Why do I say that?
Last week Boris Johnson’s Government won a vote in Parliament to give his Withdrawal Agreement Bill a Second Reading. In other words it was a vote to agree the Bill in principle to allow it to continue its passage through Parliament, including scrutiny of the detail. I think it is a bad Bill and I voted against the Second Reading but I was in the losing side. That means I have to accept that the Bill should now proceed for further consideration by Parliament.
The only person that is stopping that now happening is the Prime Minister himself. He started off trying to insist that Parliament should have no more than a few days to consider his Bill in detail. When Parliament said no to his timetable, the Prime Minister could have asked Parliament to agree a different one. Scrutiny of the Bill does not need to take months but – if it is going to be done properly – it cannot simply take days.
But Boris Johnson has proposed no such revised timetable to Parliament. Instead, in what appears to be a fit of petulance, he is now insisting that, rather than bring his own Bill back, he wants a General Election to take place just before Christmas.
Whether they voted to Leave or Remain in 2016, everybody I speak to wants Brexit sorted one way or another. The trouble is that a General Election does not achieve that. A General Election should be about people electing the individual candidates they want to represent them in Parliament and choosing between different parties’ alternative programmes for Government. It should not be about a single issue – even one as important to the future of our country as our future relationship with the EU. An election should not be used as a kind of surrogate referendum in the way Boris Johnson is attempting, particularly when there is no consensus in the country about what a vote one way or another in such an election would actually endorse or reject as far as Brexit is concerned. Remember too that an election now could easily end up with another hung parliament and leave the impasse over Brexit in a worse place than it is now.
There are also good reasons why elections hardly ever take place in December. A winter election during cold weather is likely to depress turnout by older people and many with disabilities. Not only that but dark nights are not conducive to parties being able to engage with voters in the way that is important to democracy in the run up to elections. The date on which Boris Johnson is insisting – 12th December – also has real problems of its own. Coming after most universities and colleges will have broken up for Christmas, the ability of many students to vote is likely to be hampered. Boris Johnson might think that is an advantage to him in the light of his unpopularity amongst young people but it is not good for democracy.
So, putting all that together, I believe we should sort out Brexit by sorting out Brexit, by timetabling the Withdrawal Agreement Bill for debate, not by trying to have a snap election in December instead. Of course, I would like to see that Bill amended during its passage through Parliament. The Prime Minister’s current Bill still leaves a No Deal Brexit as a possibility down the line. Because of the damage that would do to jobs and livelihoods in this country, I want to see No Deal ruled out. There is little doubt that the threat that the Bill poses for stability in Northern Ireland needs rethinking too. I am also one of those who would like to make the Bill’s passage into law conditional on the terms of the Brexit deal being endorsed in a confirmatory referendum. The people, not politicians, should have the final say. Parliament should have the opportunity to vote on amendments like these. Without amendment, I cannot see my supporting the Bill when the concluding Parliamentary vote on it takes place. But if people like me again lose in these votes, so be it. Either way a decision will be made – and much more quickly than if everything is now put on hold for a six week election campaign.
But it is actually worse than this. Boris Johnson is not just demanding an election on 12th December. He is even trying to change the law governing when elections can be held to allow him to do so. And, guess what, he is again trying to allow little or no time to discuss his new election law. As I write this, most MPs have not even been able to see the text of the new law he wants to bring in, let alone consider it. And yet the Prime Minister is demanding that the whole thing should be done and dusted by the Commons in just a few hours today.
Boris Johnson came into Government saying his priority was to “Get Brexit done.” By refusing to allow his Withdrawal Agreement Bill to proceed to its next stages of consideration by Parliament, he is demonstrating that in reality his priorities are elsewhere. To him it’s all about getting his way. This is not grown-up government and the British people have a right to expect better from a Prime Minister.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to see Boris Johnson out of Downing Street. He is a dreadful Prime Minister whose word cannot be trusted. After the damage that ten years of Conservative-led government has done to our country, I also want to give the British people the chance to elect a new government that works for the many, not the privileged few. So, yes, I want to see a General Election. I will listen to what is said today but, to give everybody the maximum opportunity to vote in a General Election, as things stand I think the best time for it to take place is likely to be early Spring. The priority before then is to get the impasse over Brexit resolved – one way or another.
Today’s “decisions are not just about whether this deal gets over the line, and getting Brexit done, but about what it means for our country.” For one of clearest explanations of the real dangers that Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal poses for our key industries – including for jobs and opportunities in the West Midlands – please read today’s speech in the Commons today from Labour’s Keir Starmer. The Hansard transcript of his speech is here. Speech starts at 12.11pm.
Ministers claim that these fears are not well-founded, but Sir Keir Starmer’s questions are taken from what Boris Johnson’s deal itself says. Remember too that Ministers have admitted that they have not even carried out a full assessment of the impact the deal is likely to have on our economy.
Yes, after three years, Brexit needs to be sorted. But the reality is that nobody had even seen Johnson’s deal until Thursday. It was wrong for the Prime Minister to try to bounce Parliament into endorsing it just 48 hours later when so many questions about it remain unanswered and before the Government has even published the legislation that would be needed to enact it. Indeed, if the deal had been endorsed by MPs today, and that as yet unpublished legislation then failed to get a majority, the result would have been the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal on 31st October by default – with the disastrous consequences that would entail for our country.
That was why Parliament was right to vote as we did today and to insist that we should know the small print of what Johnson’s deal means for the future of our country before we are asked to sign off on it.
Which, of course also raises the question of who should have the final sign-off in any event. As Parliament debated today, hundreds of thousands of people marched through London to demand that, just as it was a vote of the people that has taken Britain onto the road to Brexit, so too should the people have the final say when the full terms of the deal on offer are known . For reasons I have outlined in the Brexit updates I publish on my website, I back the demand for a People’s Vote. I do so not to delay a decision but to break the gridlock in Parliament and bring the indecision to an end, with the confidence that the course that this country decides to take will reflect what the British people want to see.
Nobody has ever seen anything like this. We have a Prime Minster who has been found by the highest court in the land to have acted unlawfully in asking the Queen to shut down Parliament for five weeks. The Prime Minister seems to have been so sure that he would get his way that he did not even put in a witness statement to the Court. The judgement could not have been more damning. On the basis of the evidence they received the Court found “there was no reason, let alone a good reason” which justified what Boris Johnson had done.
You would think that something like this might have prompted a little humility on the part of the Prime Minister. Not a bit of it. When he appeared in Parliament last week Boris Johnson appeared to think he was above the law and insisted that the Judgement was wrong. Just as serious, he did so in a way that seemed deliberately designed to deepen the divisions in the country that are taking on an increasingly ugly character. When an MP from Yorkshire talked about the death threats she and others have received, the Prime Minister dismissed her words as “humbug”.
And he has continued to refuse to give a straight answer about whether he will carry out the mandate Parliament has given him over Brexit in a law passed just a few weeks ago.
I think we are entitled to expect better from a Prime Minister – particularly at a time when Britain faces decisions on the most profound issues affecting our country for generations.
After all this time and after all the arguments, people want Brexit sorted one way or the other – whether they voted Remain or Leave back in 2016. I get that and agree with it. The issue is how we achieve it in practice.
How did we get here?
First, though, here is a quick recap on the story so far. Sometimes you get the impression that MPs have spent the three years that have elapsed since the referendum refusing to agree on a deal to leave the EU. I can understand why it sometimes seems like that but that is not actually what has taken place.
For most of that time the then Prime Minister Theresa May either could not or would not say what deal she was seeking from the EU. If you check the entries on my website from 2016, 2017 and 2018 at www.richardburden.com/brexit you will see that for most of that time MPs like me were calling on her to produce a plan that could be tested to best protect jobs and living standards in the UK after Brexit.
If Theresa May had been willing to discuss the possibilities with MPs across the Commons at that time a lot could have been sorted out. But she did not do that and it was not until the end of last year that Theresa May finally told Parliament the details of the deal she had agreed with the EU. When she did so Labour set out why we could not support her plan and what needed to change in it. The fact that hardliners in her own party also opposed her scuppered her deal three times in the House of Commons. Their objections were different from those of Labour and most other opposition parties. The hardline Tory rebels focussed on the so called “Backstop”, which ironically was a necessary part of the deal to avoid the re-emergence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and was key to maintaining the peace process that has achieved so much in the past two decades. If Theresa May’s deal had included some of the things Labour had recommended, the Backstop would not have been necessary. Without those things, something like the Backstop was inevitable.
Some of the Tory rebels against Theresa May were so hardline that it is doubtful they would have backed any realistic Brexit deal preferring to risk the UK crashing out of the EU without any deal at all. Other rebels seemed more motivated by personal ambition, hoping to profit politically if Theresa May was brought down as leader of the Conservative Party. The most prominent of those was Boris Johnson.
However we got here though, the fact that Brexit remains unresolved is a collective failure of government and Parliament as a whole. The most important thing for all of is to find a way of sorting out the issue of Brexit one way or another to enable the country to move on.
In my last Brexit update I explained why I believe a No Deal Brexit would be the worst deal of all. And it wouldn’t be the end of the story. None of the issues that a Brexit deal would have to cover would go away. They would still have to be sorted somehow and it would take years more negotiations to do so. The only difference would be that if we had already left the EU without a deal, food and medicine supplies would already have been disrupted, thousands of jobs would have been lost across the country, and peace in Northern Ireland would have been put at risk in the meantime.
In that update and in others over the past year I also said why I think the people, not just politicians, should be given the final choice on where we go from here. I will not go into detail about why I think that again here. However, I do just want to say three things.
First, I disagree with those who say a People’s Vote is simply a device to overrule the votes of those who voted Leave in 2016. It is not. I have no idea which side would win in another referendum. What I do know is that every vote would count the same – either for the deal finally on offer or against it. The UK would only stay in the EU if a majority voted that way.
Second, this is not a re-run of the first referendum. That was a vote on whether in principle the UK should leave the EU or remain in it. I along with other MPs voted to implement that decision when we voted to trigger Article 50 and open Brexit negotiations with the EU. Only after those negotiations are completed can any of us know the final terms of what is on offer. Before I was an MP, I worked for a trade union. Before we put in claims to employers, we would consult our members to make sure we were asking for was what they wanted. Often we would later ballot them once the terms of the employer’s offer in response to our claim were clear. It was about giving members the final say. I do not see why the British people should not have the same opportunity to express a view once the final terms of Brexit are known.
The third point I would emphasise here is that a People’s Vote is not about delaying a decision but about making one. Unlike last time, the legislation governing this referendum could specify that the result is automatically passed into law. No more arguments in Parliament, whichever side wins. Brexit has to be sorted one way or the other. A People’s Vote can achieve that.
Lastly, I want to say something about the way we talk to each other. Some of you will agree with what I have said in this update. Others will disagree. But we are never going to find a way forward unless we treat with respect those who may take a different view to our own. The vitriol and threats against people we are now seeing on social media and worse are incompatible with democracy. Only three years ago my friend Jo Cox MP was murdered by a Far Right extremist yelling “Britain First” as he killed her. All our futures depend on there being no place in our society for that kind of violent hate. That means rejecting the rhetoric that feeds the violence too – from whichever quarter it comes.
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.
Today, Boris Johnson asked the Queen to prorogue (suspend) Parliament for the best part of a month from the week beginning 9th September.
The Prime Minister claims it is simply a pause in Parliamentary business ahead of his Government announcing its legislative programme in a Queen’s Speech he has scheduled for 14th October. The reality is very different. Describing the move as a “constitutional outrage” Commons Speaker, John Bercow said today:
“However it is dressed up it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop Parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country.”
Speaker Bercow is right. Up and down the country, opinion is sharply divided over Brexit and, in particular over the prospect of Britain leaving the EU without a deal on 31st October. Elected by the people, it is Parliament’s job to agree a way forward, deciding whether to approve, reject or change proposals that Prime Minister and his Government put to us. The Prime Minister is accountable to Parliament and, in turn we, as MPs in Parliament, are accountable for our decisions to the people who elected us.
By his actions today, Boris Johnson has turned that principle on its head. At the very time it is most important Parliament is in session to allow decisions to be made, he wants us shut down, allowing him to do what he wants without being answerable to anyone. He is behaving like a tin pot despot and, by invoking the convention by which the monarch goes along with advice from the Prime Minister, he has used the Queen to enable him to do so. Many would say he has abused that convention.
Little wonder then that Boris Johnson’s actions are already provoking fury well beyond Westminster. Within a few hours, over 550,000 people up and down the country had signed a petition against the suspension of Parliament. You can join them here.
As I write this, more signatures were coming in at the rate of about 1,000 per minute. Along with other MPs, in the coming days I will be looking at how, even at this late stage, we can intervene to protect our democracy from a Prime Minister so hell-bent on undermining it.