At this very point in time, I was meant to be at a reception to thank British MEPs past and present for their contribution to political life. The sad fact is that, during my time in the European Parliament, Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem MEPs from this country would often work together to find common solutions.
This is a very challenging time, but the circumstances were predicted. I recall that, in the winter just after the referendum, the then ambassador to Brussels, Ivan Rogers, came to visit me in my office to talk about what the last stages of the negotiation were likely to be. He wanted to decide what date he should recommend to be put on the article 50 letter. We discussed how intense the situation would be in the run-up to the European elections. We also talked about how, in the European Parliament, the first vote in a series of negotiations would often not get through and the matter would need to come back for a few little manoeuvres, and perhaps some side agreements, before getting through on the second or third attempt. We particularly decided on the March date to ensure that if we needed an extension for a second or third vote, there would be time for that before the European elections. This was all predicted. The only thing that Ivan and I got wrong was that we predicted that the challenge would be to get this through the European Parliament, not to get it through here.
Let us look at what is now the real deadline. The real deadline is the European elections. Colleagues, I have fought a lot of European elections. I fought the one in 2009 in the middle of the expenses scandal. There were 58 Westminster MPs in the area that I campaigned in, and less than a handful were even prepared to show their faces on the streets in their own constituencies. The situation was toxic, but nothing like as toxic as it would be if we were to go back to our constituencies to fight another European election. Just think about who the candidates would be in those elections and what they would face. Heidi Allen is not in her seat, but she has said that she wants a second referendum. She was not even brave enough to attend public meetings in her own constituency during the first referendum—I had to do it. Just think what the next elections would be like.
I do not underestimate how damaging a no deal would be. A no deal is not a good deal. It does not matter as much to people who are not affected by Europe, but for people who have relatives living in Europe, who are married to an EU citizen or who own a business that trades with Europe—like the stallholder at a market in my Essex constituency who told me last Saturday, “Vicky, we need a deal. I will be bust within a week if we do not have a deal”—we must find a deal.
There is only one deal on the table right now, and it is the withdrawal agreement and the future partnership. I have listened over and over again to Labour Members, and the shadow Brexit Secretary has said that, fundamentally, the Opposition do not have a problem with the withdrawal agreement but that they have a problem with the vagueness of the future partnership and the political declaration.
Donald Tusk picked his words carefully in his statement today. He said we can have this extension if we agree the withdrawal agreement. He is not committing us to one route or another on the future partnership. He said we should agree the withdrawal agreement, and we can then take that moment to work out where we need to land for our future relationship, because no deal is not a good place to be. This is too high a risk for our constituents. Even though I would like to have much more clarity on the long-term relationship, I will continue to vote for the withdrawal agreement because I do not condone the damage that crashing out in a no-deal Brexit would do to our country and to our relationship with Europe.