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.

Looking Ahead

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.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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