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.