When I spoke in Parliament in December, I explained why I would be voting against the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement. I said “we cannot possibly know why each of the 17.4 million or so people voted for Brexit, but we can be confident that few of them did so in the hope that we would end up with a deal like the one we are debating today.”
Just like the Withdrawal Agreement itself which has returned to Parliament, my views have not changed. I still believe it to be flawed and risky, and to say I am disappointed that this is what the Prime Minister has produced after two years of discussions is a gigantic understatement. It reflects a failure on the part of Government, and Parliament. And it betrays a contempt for all those who voted in the referendum – some of them for the first time in their lives – to leave the EU.
But what has changed is the context, and the same deal I have previously voted against began to look like the only mechanism available to us to leave the EU.
The fact is, both Parliament and Government are dominated by people who have never reconciled themselves to the outcome of the referendum. For a while they talked the talk and repeated the mantra that it had to be honoured. But their actions have always pointed in the other direction. And as the months have gone by, they have been emboldened to such an extent that many of them have simply dropped the pretence altogether.
I have always favoured leaving the EU with an orderly deal – one that enables a close trading relationship, which removes us both from the Single Market and Customs Union, and which allows us to negotiate new relationships with countries outside of the EU. But I have never believed in the apocalyptic predictions associated with the prospect of our leaving on WTO terms.
Some of the MPs who voted against the Withdrawal Agreement did so because they believe it means we can leave on WTO terms. Their view is that ‘so-called no-deal’ is better than a bad deal. But the hardcore Remainers in the Conservative Party as well as Labour, Lib Dems and the new Independent Group of MPs also voted against the deal because they believe it means we will not leave the EU at all.
These groups can’t both be right, and I fear it will now be the Remainers, not the Brexiters who take complete control. They will use the defeat to either kill off Brexit altogether, or to soften it such an extent that we will simply become a non-voting rule taking appendage to what is rapidly morphing into a single European country.
First, there will be a motion to remove ‘no deal’ from the menu. I will vote against the motion because I cannot see how we can negotiate any sort of acceptable deal if those we are negotiating with know we are not prepared to walk away. But Parliament will undoubtedly back the motion.
Second, there will be a motion to apply for an Article 50 extension. I will vote against because it seems clear that those asking for it are doing so as part of a longer term plan to derail Brexit altogether, either directly or via a second referendum. Nor do I believe it would result in meaningful improvements. Parliament will almost certainly back the motion.
I cannot camouflage the anger I feel about the feebleness of the Government’s negotiations. We conducted them from a position of reluctance and weakness and the result is the Withdrawal Agreement we have today. But despite its weakness, I chose to vote for it because I believe the alternative is far worse. I felt we could bank the offer, leave the EU on the 29th March, put to bed all talk of second referendums and Article 50 extensions, and we could begin the process of negotiating a long term relationship with the EU. There would be a very real risk of becoming trapped in the hated Backstop. But I felt that with the right approach, we could improve the agreement and avoid the backstop.
The deal has been voted down and no one knows where we will be on March 29th.
In due course there will be other motions, all designed to deliver a deal that barely resembles Brexit. My fear is that - bit by bit - Parliament will discard the pretence that it is committed to delivering on the referendum, and we will end up in an even worse situation than we have now: we will effectively be in the EU, but with no seat at the table.
I spoke in Parliament about why that matters.
“A failure to honour the referendum would surely cause an irreparable breakdown in the relationship between the people and the authorities. It would usher in a new era of extreme politics. There is no reason why the UK should be immune to the trends that are plaguing almost every other country in Europe: in France, where Le Pen leads in the polls; in Germany, where the Alternative für Deutschland, founded in only 2013, is now the biggest opposition party in Parliament; in Austria, where the Freedom party is part of the Government; and in Italy, Spain, Sweden, Greece and so on. If the gut fear that so many people have, the feeling that the political elite simply cannot be trusted, is utterly and completely confirmed, where will those mainstream voters go?”
We are on the precipice of doing just that. I sincerely hope I am wrong, but I fear for the future of our country.