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It has fallen to this generation of politicians to make one of the most profound decisions outside of war that this country has ever had to make. The referendum result exposed a deeply divided country, with many voters wanting to send a strong message to elites, whether political or business, that government and the economy, whether national or European, are not delivering for them, with wage stagnation and rapid migration fuelling alienation and resentment.
The Prime Minister is fond of talking about the national interest, but the whole Brexit shambles is a consequence of the eternal European fault line in the Conservative party. This shambles of a negotiation, which has left our country a laughing stock, has been caused by red lines that may as well have been written in invisible ink and by the dogma of some hard Brexiteers who prefer a scorched earth Brexit. They can afford years of poor growth, unlike my constituents, whose jobs and living standards are on the line.
The problem with our negotiating position from the beginning has been that the starting point was not the national interest but an ill-fated attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable factions in the Cabinet and the parliamentary Conservative party, and we have ended up with a worst-of-all-worlds deal. The deal has united the Leader of the Opposition and the Democratic Unionist party—that takes some doing—and united leavers and remainers in opposition to it.
I want to turn to the notion of a people’s vote, about which I am extremely sceptical. I recall that many who now advocate a people’s vote were the biggest critics of David Cameron for holding the first referendum. In the internal debate that took place in the Labour party, good and hon. Friends now supporting a second vote were the most vociferous persuaders in ensuring that an EU referendum was not in our election manifesto. If determining our future in the EU by referendum was wrong in principle in 2015, 2016 and 2017, why is it right now?
Of course I deplore the untruths promoted by the leave campaign, including false promises, but if that is a justification for a second vote, I suggest that many general election results through history would be null and void. The only certainty about the result of a second referendum is that it would once again expose the fact that we remain deeply divided as a nation. Worse than that, even if it resulted in a decision to remain, it would fuel support for nationalism and hard-right politics and politicians like never before. It would be the elite telling the people they got it wrong and we know best. Have we learned nothing from political earthquakes erupting around the world?
I say to my Labour friends that even if a second vote results in a victory for remain, it may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. We were in the EU when, for 18 years, Thatcherism destroyed the fabric of communities in our society. We have been in the EU since 2010, while we have seen the poorest suffering the most as a consequence of austerity. There is nothing more likely to perpetuate right-wing Governments than a backlash against a second vote supported and promoted by progressives. Of course it is right to ask whether we will be worse off if we leave the EU, but it is also right to ask who will suffer the most if, through apparent contempt for half the population, we consign our country to long-term right-wing Governments.
It is incumbent on all of us not simply to oppose this bad deal and to oppose no deal, but to present an alternative, as the hon. Member for Carlisle did. I have come to the conclusion that the best, if far from perfect, option—crucially, it could secure a majority in this place—is so-called Norway plus. I accept that will become possible only when hon. Members’ first preferences are defeated, but I believe a significant majority in this House will act in the way envisaged in the amendment of Mr Grieve, which we passed last night, and unite around that option as the best and only viable alternative to no deal. It is not perfect, but it respects the referendum result while providing the stability to ensure a relatively smooth economic transition.
Since the referendum, the Government have let the people of this country down very badly. They failed to seek cross-party consensus when that was possible and indeed was required by such a close result. Instead, they have allowed the dysfunctional Tory family on Europe to create a dysfunctional country that is much diminished in the world. The Prime Minister has not listened, and in the case of Northern Ireland has clearly breached trust. That is a question of substance, and not just for the politicians representing Northern Ireland in this House; it is about a sense of being told untruths.
That is why Members of good will on both sides must make the best use of yesterday’s amendment, assert the authority of Parliament and show what acting in the national interest truly means. Only then will we put the country on a path to a better future, and maybe even regain some public confidence and respect. Hon. Members need to reflect on the public’s contempt: they asked this group of politicians to make the decision on Brexit in the national interest, yet all they see is a disastrous situation where the Government have negotiated a shoddy deal and Parliament seems absolutely incapable of coming together and working together in the national interest. If, as we suspect, the amendments and the substantive motion are defeated next week, it is incumbent on all of us in this House to unite not around the ideal, but around a solution that is pragmatic and actually represents the best interests of this country. I urge people to give serious consideration to Norway plus in that context.