Articles about ‘Brexit’
Since I published my last Brexit update, the results of local Council and European elections should give all parties pause for thought. Both sets of elections saw voters express frustration at the continuing uncertainty over where we are going as a country in relation to Brexit.
Last Tuesday, the online magazine LabourList, published this article from me in which I set out some of the lessons I think my Party should learn going forward. It will not please everybody – that is inevitable. My point is that on issues like Brexit on which there are deep and genuinely-held differences across the country, all of us should be true to ourselves in what we say and not resort to abuse of those who take a different view.
And we need to find a way through this. People on both sides of the Brexit debate have interpreted the results of the Euro elections in different ways. Some have pointed to the fact that the Brexit Party secured more votes than any other single party as proof that the country still backs Brexit, without a deal if necessary. Others take a different view, pointing out that the total number votes cast for parties unambiguously backing Remain was higher than the number cast for parties unambiguously backing Brexit. However you look at it, though, the country is still divided and in truth none of us know where the majority now lies. With decision-making in Parliament deadlocked and likely to remain so, I do not therefore see any alternative but to resolve the issue by another referendum. In my Labour List article I explain why I think this – on practical grounds as well as reasons of principle.
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.
You may have already seen that I recently sent out my latest Brexit update covering recent developments in Parliament, which you can read here. Since then, we have had another tumultuous week with a lot going on in and around Parliament. On Monday, I spoke in the debate in the Commons about Brexit, and you can watch my speech here or read it here. I highlighted my concerns about a no deal Brexit, and about the current Brexit logjam in Parliament.
On Wednesday, MPs voted in a series of so-called indicative votes, designed to gauge levels of support for various Brexit options. Parliament voted on no deal, common market 2.0, membership of EFTA and EEA, membership of a customs union, Labour’s alternative plan, revoking article 50 to avoid no deal, a confirmatory people’s vote, and trying to reach a different kind of trade agreement with the EU if no withdrawal agreement is implemented. You can see how I voted in each of the votes here. This first round of indicative votes was inconclusive, with no options securing a majority of votes cast. However, there was considerable support for both a customs union and a confirmatory public vote. Following this, the next few days need to be used to look closely at last night’s votes and draw up a series of options that have a chance of securing a majority of votes in Parliament. This will not be an easy task, but we have a responsibility to work towards securing a majority of support for a way forward. The current uncertainty that is characterising the Brexit process is benefiting nobody. It is causing real frustration among the British people on all sides of the debate, and is damaging to our economy.
Also on Wednesday, Theresa May announced that she will step down as Prime Minister before the next phase of Brexit negotiations. This was followed by her publishing plans to ask the House of Commons on Friday 29th March to agree the part of her deal covered by the Withdrawal Agreement while postponing discussion of the “Political Declaration” – or other part of the deal on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. There are two problems with this. The first is that up until now both the Prime Minister and the EU have always insisted that both documents are package and that one cannot stand without the other. The other and more serious problem is that by trying to separate the two, Theresa May is asking MPs to confirm 22nd May as Brexit day, blind to what arrangements will be in place or possible thereafter. Indeed, her decision to stand down could well mean that we will not even know who will be conducting the negotiations with the EU, other than that it will be whoever replaces her as Conservative leader. I just don’t believe this is reasonable. Our future relationship with the EU after Brexit is far too important to be framed by the internal processes of the Conservative Party. The House of Commons as a whole should have the opportunity to seriously consider and reach decisions on these matters before Brexit takes effect. As I write this report, Parliament is debating the Prime Minster’s latest proposal. By the time you read it, the results of today’s votes may well be known so you may be ahead of me!
Brexit continues to dominate Parliament. Regardless of your views on it, if you are confused by what is going on and frustrated with the seemingly unending Parliamentary wrangles, you are not alone. Many of us inside Parliament share those frustrations. In this update, therefore, I will try to explain the past week’s developments in as plain language as I can.
Last Week’s events
On Tuesday 12th March, MPs once again voted resoundingly to reject the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement, by 391 votes to 242. I was one of those MPs voting against. Despite all of the media attention given to the Northern Irish backstop issue (which you can read about here), this has never been the basis of my objection to the deal. I am more concerned with the fact that there are no guarantees about the kind of long-term relationship that the UK will have with the EU after the two-year transition period. If the Prime Minister’s deal goes through, we will potentially be faced with another two years of arguments about that future relationship.
Having again rejected May’s deal on Tuesday, Parliament then had to decide whether to leave the EU without a deal on 29th March or to give ourselves and the EU more time to find a way though the mess. On Wednesday 13th March, Parliament voted to reject a no deal Brexit, and this was also my view. Without a deal, customs checks would have to be put in place at channel ports, leading to damaging delays costing millions for companies like those in the automotive sector – which rely on just in time deliveries of components from mainland Europe to the UK and vice versa. The imposition of tariffs on goods traded between the EU and UK would also put up the price of many goods imported to the UK. Automotive companies and many others involved in manufacturing have warned how damaging a no deal Brexit would be. Given the importance of the manufacturing industry to the Midlands, that is a serious concern for jobs in our region. I spoke about the dangers of a No Deal Brexit in the House of Commons in January, and you can see my speech here.
On Thursday 14th March, the focus of debate moved on to how to secure the time needed to agree a way forward following Parliament’s rejection of no deal. This means extending Article 50 – the procedure though which Member states leave the EU. Britain triggered Article 50 two years ago with a deadline of 29th March 2019 for completing the process. Once Article 50 has been triggered, it can only be extended with the agreement of all 27 other EU Member States. Voting in favour of an extension was a sensible move to allow sufficient time to agree a realistic alternative way forward – for example by holding a series of indicative votes in Parliament to identify levels of support for different kinds of a Brexit deal from that recommended by the Prime Minister. Consideration could also be given to holding another referendum to break the log jam in Parliament and give the British people the final choice between any deal finally negotiated and remaining in the EU.
The Prime Minister’s Reaction
Unfortunately, in the past few days, and in contrast to what the Government had said last week, the Prime Minister has refused to request the kind of Article 50 extension that would be necessary to explore options such as these. Instead, she only appears interested in seeking an extension that would enable her once again to ask Parliament to vote for the kind of deal that has already been decisively rejected twice. It is simply not good enough and I believe Parliament must now insist on a different approach from the Government. Indeed, Theresa May’s attempts to keep presenting Parliament with a deal that has already been rejected could themselves be contrary to Parliamentary rules – something which the House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, himself reminded the Government about in recent days.
In any event, as I write this update, the Government has now written to the EU to request an extension to Article 50 until the end of June. In the coming days we will hear the response from the EU and there is little doubt in my mind that pressure will increase on the Prime Minister to change course.
I have been contacted by a large number of constituents who have deeply held views on all sides of the Brexit debate, often urging me to do completely different or opposite things. In those circumstances, I believe my duty is to act in accordance with what I genuinely believe is in the interests of my constituents and the country as a whole. It is not surprising that an issue of such significance to the future of our country arouses such passion on all sides of the argument. Whatever our individual viewpoints, however, I believe it is vital that discussions about what the UK should do from here should be conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect for differing positions – whether those discussions take place in the House of Commons, in the pub or on social media. All of us have a duty to remember that, however the arguments now going on are finally resolved, it is in all our interests to remain focused on bring the country together. After all, we all have a stake in our country’s future.
The harsh reality is that Britain’s reputation as a stable place to do business and as the gateway to Europe is being undermined before our eyes. Here is my question to the Government yesterday on Honda’s Swindon closure: