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European Union (Withdrawal) Act

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:38 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield 8:38 pm, 25th March 2019

I also rise to support amendments (a), (d) and (f), and it is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy. She spent much of her speech talking about the atmosphere within which this debate is happening, and I, too, would like to spend a few moments on that.

Like others, I have been bombarded in recent weeks with emails and other communications telling me to vote in diametrically opposed directions. Many insist that if I vote differently from the way they wish, I will be acting against the will of the people. I have not had the same level of aggression from all quarters, but some of it has been pretty extreme. I have been compared to a range of bodily parts of both the female and the male variety. Some have called me a traitor. A few have gone further. One email I read yesterday expressed the hope that this place would be burned to the ground with me and other hon. Members in it. I know that several hon. Members have received worse and in far greater quantities. There is no excuse for such threats and abuse. Neither I nor other hon. Members will be intimidated, but we have to face up to what is happening.

This kind of toxic atmosphere in politics is not unique to the UK—it is happening in other countries—but Brexit gives it a focus, and it can lead to violence against people regarded as believing the wrong things or simply because of who they are. My plea is that all of us who have the privilege to speak from public platforms, which can create headlines, think carefully about how we conduct ourselves and the way we frame political debates and take care not to contribute to that atmosphere of toxicity and intolerance, which undermines democracy and can lead to violence.

There is a deeper problem here. All too often people feel the political debate in this place happens at a level that does not speak to them and bypasses their concerns. They look aghast at how we have got stuck in a logjam over Brexit. Yes, the Prime Minister has made that worse, not better—her attempt last Wednesday to shift the blame on to everyone other than herself was unworthy of her office—but we need to look at ourselves too and understand that too often we appear to embody the stereotype of an institution that talks only to itself, not to the outside world. We need to learn from that, not only in relation to Brexit, but more generally.

What does that mean for the decisions we face tonight? The bottom line is that no deal cannot be allowed to happen by accident any more than by design. As chair of the all-party motor group, I know that all the warnings—from BMW, JLR, Nissan, Toyota, Vauxhall, and Aston Martin—could not have been clearer. Investment decisions are on hold now and our reputation in the international community is being trashed before our eyes. A no-deal Brexit would jeopardise the future of the plants of several of those car manufacturers and many thousands of jobs, and similar warnings are coming from other sectors, as others have said.

The priority has to be avoiding the nightmare of no deal, and that means agreeing a procedure that allows us not so much to vote for or against our perfect or worst options, but to do as the right hon. Member for West Dorset has urged and express preferences for ways forward we can live with. The idea of doing that through paper ballots is exactly right because it would allow people to express preferences and vote for several different options. This cannot be a zero-sum game. The objective has to be to find a centre of gravity through which we can move forward.

Mr Clarke and my hon. Friend Helen Goodman are right that, as we move through that process, which may take some time, some kind of preference balloting is likely to be necessary. I suspect that, if we find that centre of gravity, it will involve jettisoning some of the Prime Minister’s red lines, so there is a question for her there, and a decision for her to make. If the centre of gravity in this House becomes a place that is beyond and different from her red lines, she must answer that question. Will she abide by the will of the House, and will she take that forward in negotiations with the European Union? Unless she is prepared to do so, the sustainable majority to which the right hon. Member for West Dorset referred will not be allowed to have its voice, and if it is not allowed to have its voice, democracy will be the poorer, the House will be the poorer, and the debate about Brexit will be set back.

In the few moments that I have left, I want to say a few words about the idea of a second referendum. It seems to me that when a million people take to the streets, that is not something we should ignore. In my view, arguing for a final say on any deal eventually arrived at, or against the possibility that the House is unable to achieve a way forward, has a logic to it, but let us not kid ourselves that the passions aroused in favour of a second referendum—or a people’s vote—are not also aroused in other directions. The risk that a referendum will be conducted in a divisive atmosphere is a real risk, and we must recognise and address it. To me, that does not mean moving away from, or rejecting, the idea of a second referendum, but it does constitute a further indication and a further reminder to us that we must at least approach the coming weeks and months in a way that makes clear the kind of politics that we want to develop in this country. It must be clear that this process is about resolving differences, not about exacerbating them,