Articles about ‘Brexit’
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.
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.