I recall, not long after the Chequers plan was announced, looking across the Chamber during Prime Minister’s questions and feeling a terrible sense of dread as I realised that the moment of reckoning was coming that could see this House completely out of step with the wishes of the British people. That moment is now upon us, with each and every parliamentarian facing a choice that could profoundly influence trust and faith in our democracy.
The EU referendum took place before 2017 MPs like me were elected. I approached that poll as a private citizen, with a genuinely open mind about the choice before us. The subject of Europe was never one that had consumed me. Along with countless British citizens, I thoroughly researched the issue and largely ignored the hyperbolic official campaigns. As I did so, I assumed that the facts would eventually stack neatly in favour of one choice or the other as I totted up the benefits and drawbacks of each. However, that never happened. I came to realise that the referendum was not a black and white issue with a correct answer, but fundamentally a judgment call about the future, a future that neither side could claim to predict.
I judged that the EU was going to have to politically integrate more deeply if the euro was to survive, creating an inevitable and potentially unbridgeable fissure with non-eurozone members. I saw an organisation that was unwilling or unable to change in the face of major crises at its borders and across its economies, a body that seemed ever more distant from the people it purported to represent and whose structure was neither nimble nor flexible enough to deal with the fast-changing global landscape. When attempts to renegotiate our relationship resulted in so little and when referendums in other nations had gone largely ignored, the notion that we might influence fundamental reform from within seemed more the triumph of hope over experience.
I was equally fed up with the habit of our own politicians of blaming the UK’s shortcomings on Brussels all the time. After the financial crisis and expenses scandal, faith in politicians seemed never to have been lower. I wanted greater accountability of the governing and to bring power closer to, and restore the consent of, the governed. I did not tell anyone else what option to choose, but I decided on balance to vote leave, in the faith and acceptance that whatever the result it would be implemented by those in power. Now I am an MP, I believe ever more, as I look across at a continent where people’s genuine frustrations are translating into political extremism, that Brexit gives British politicians the chance to shape today what could prove an uncontrollable democratic crisis tomorrow.
After my election, I supported the Prime Minister’s original Brexit strategy as set out in her numerous speeches: not to cherry-pick from the EU’s four freedoms, but, while leaving, to seek as wide-ranging and comprehensive a trading and security relationship as possible. I accepted that compromise would be necessary to get there and that aspects of the process would be complex. The Chequers plan, however, marked a turning point for us all. Far from pleasing either side, it united both remain and leave camps in its misguided attempt to achieve a half-in, half-out relationship with the EU. Once that plan had been roundly rejected by European negotiators and requests for a new direction were resisted, we were set on the path of the deeply flawed withdrawal agreement that we debate here today. With the clock wound down and no-deal warnings ramped up, this agreement is now being fought not on its merits but on the grounds that the Government have contrived to offer no better options. Under its terms, on
It has been convenient to portray this battle as one that takes place exclusively within the Conservative Party, and to suggest that a small band of right-wing Brexiteers is holding the moderate majority to ransom. However, this is not about what Brexiteers want. The reason why this fight matters so deeply is that this withdrawal agreement is not consistent with what the British people voted for and it places us in a position unworthy of our nation.