For many months, we have been confronted with a series of choices and a series of false choices. The country had to choose whether to leave or remain. Those in the Cabinet had to choose whether to leave or remain in the Cabinet. For many Government Members, the choice has become whether to leave with or without a deal. For many Opposition Members, the choice has been whether to call for a second referendum or to accept the first.
Many famous figures have been quoted since we started our debate back at the beginning of December, but these are the words that keep coming back to me: it is not our abilities in life but our choices that define who we truly are. For all the heart searching and the division that these questions have caused, I am convinced more than ever that the real divide in our country is not between those who voted to remain and those who voted to leave but, as the leader of my party said last week, between the many who do the work, create the wealth and pay the taxes, and the few who set the rules, reap the rewards and so often dodge paying the taxes. The real choice is choosing whose side we are on when we see injustice, unfairness and inequality. In answer to that question, my party—the Labour party—has always throughout its history had one and only one answer. As the party of the many, we seek to heal the appalling divide that we now see in our society.
The speeches that have moved me in the long course of our debate since December were those like that of my hon. Friend Gareth Snell, who explained that his constituents were not interested in the processes and the amendments. He said:
“They want to know how they will feed their kids and heat their house, and how they will get to work if there is no bus. How will they make ends meet if they have to move from their current benefit on to universal credit?”
That view was intriguingly echoed from the Government Benches by Johnny Mercer, who said:
“The vote to leave was in no small part a cri de coeur from millions of people who feel that the powers that be in Westminster no longer know, let alone care, what it feels like to walk in their shoes…At every level, there was a direct correlation between household income and the likelihood to vote for leaving the EU.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 650, c. 1144-1159.]
The social divide in our country is real. I agree with my colleagues who say, “That was not caused by the European Union.” That is true, but nor did the European Union provide a shield against it. It will not be solved if we become poorer by leaving the EU, but while our country has been a member of the EU, the experience of those millions of people has been the loss of secure jobs, the hollowing out of their communities, and years of austerity and harsh social policy. That is why remaining in the EU does not appear to them to be a solution to the inequality we face.
Cri de coeur it may have been, but those people will feel nothing but anger and disgust for us as politicians if we turn around now and patronise them by ignoring and reversing on the message they gave us in the referendum. My good friend Chi Onwurah expressed that with an eloquence we rarely hear in the Chamber when she said:
“The right to be heard is a key battleground in the history of our country, and it is at the heart of the age-old division between those who labour in silence and those who speak from a gilded platform.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 650, c. 832.]
My God, I wish I had said that.
When the referendum result came in, those who voted to leave finally felt that their voices had been heard. The House has to understand that despite the social chapter and the good will of our MEPs, the EU did not present itself as a champion of the voiceless. It was against that backdrop that the Prime Minister had an opportunity to put together a future that met the aspirations of those voters. She could and should have recognised that when our fellow citizens are divided 52% to 48%, it is the time not to go back in the political bunker but to reach out. She should have reached out and tried to build a consensus across Parliament that would have united our country. That would have been leadership, but instead she doubled down, put her party interests before the country and tried to appease the European Research Group.
I do not deny that the Prime Minister has shown steel and determination, but there is a point at which steel and determination become obstinacy and recklessness, and she has gone far beyond it. The Labour party consistently argued that before triggering article 50, Parliament must be properly consulted on, and fully involved in, the impact assessments, the right to a meaningful vote, the deal and the financial modelling. We argued that Parliament had the right to see the full legal opinion prepared by the Attorney General. The Prime Minister’s refusal at every stage was a blunder that resulted in an achievement unique in 1,000 years of our history in this place: a Government being held to be in contempt of Parliament. That is ironic, given that Brexit was supposed to be about restoring the sovereignty of Parliament.