Make no mistake, Britain is on the brink. This week Parliament will re-start the debate on the Prime Minister’s Brexit Deal, having lost a month. In all likelihood, the House of Commons will vote down a deal that deserves to be defeated. Parliament is deadlocked. Our country is bitterly divided. It is no exaggeration to say we face the greatest political and constitutional emergency we’ve had in peacetime. This is not in response to any external threat or challenge. The tragedy is we have done this to ourselves. But, because of that, we can step back from the brink. It doesn’t have to be like this. There is still time to change course.
To solve any problem, you need to understand how it came about. So first, let’s be clear about how we arrived at a deal which satisfies neither Leavers nor Remainers Second, now we know what is negotiable with the EU, let’s take a dispassionate view of forms of Brexit that have been presented to us. Third, and perhaps most importantly, political leaders across the spectrum need to come clean with the people about where Brexit will leave us as a country and what we can do about it now.
How we arrived at a deal which satisfies no one
For a process that started with a democratic roar, its implementation has been characterised by secrecy on the part of the Executive, arbitrary decision-making and a lack of engagement with the voting public. While the referendum of 2016 gave the Government a mandate to negotiate our departure from the EU, settling the question of what kind of future we want has proved considerably more difficult. There has never been an attempt to level with voters on the difficult choices and complex trade-offs involved in delivering Brexit. Instead, we had the over-simplification that there can be a unique, bespoke, deal that will address all the difficulties and contradictions in charting our path forward.
We were told it was possible to have our cake and eat it. Yet our negotiating objectives were shrouded in secrecy to keep the realities of Brexit from the public. Cabinet was often side-lined and involved only on a need- to-know basis while a small group handled the key negotiations.
The view that the establishment and the political elite have slyly sought to sabotage or block Brexit has taken hold in the public imagination, particularly for those who voted Leave. On any given day, you can find this view in the comment sections of our newspapers, on the chat show sofa and of course on social media sites. Indeed we’ve heard it so often many could be forgiven for assuming it’s true. But in truth, since 24th June 2016, everything has been done by the establishment to protect Brexit from any kind of scrutiny, whether from the courts, from Parliament, or the British people as a whole.
Nor can the Leader of the Opposition escape responsibility for this democratic deficit on Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn is a decades-long Brexiteer evidently without the courage to say so to his party. Instead, he continues to play Labour voters for fools. He and his acolytes think the EU stands in the way of their single-minded determination to turn the UK into a socialist command economy, but he knows his members are far more sceptical of Brexit.
Corbyn is enjoying the prospect of chaos, gambling it will give him his best chance to implement an out-dated, discredited economic vision of Britain. So at this critical moment in our history, the Labour Party has been derelict in bringing forward an alternative, workable plan. Labour is not a Government in waiting, but an Opposition in hiding. The consequence of the Executive’s closed and secretive approach, implemented by only one side of an evenly divided country, and with the Opposition largely absent from the field is that we have a deal neither Remainers or Leavers like.
The substantive debate about what future relationship we want with the EU has been delayed until the 11th hour. With so much at stake, and views so deeply felt on both sides, it was never going to be an easy process. But the poverty of the choices now before Parliament just will not do.
Why neither the PM’s deal or No Deal, are in the national interest.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly told us that the choice before Parliament is her deal or “No Deal”. This is no choice at all, as both present material and unconscionable risks to the national interest. As we approach the vote next week, now is the time to dispel the “cake and eat it” fantasies that have been perpetuated through this flawed process. To do otherwise risks a gross deception of the British people.
Why the PM’s deal is flawed
There can be no substantive legal changes to the Northern Ireland backstop because it is firmly wedged in the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement, and the EU have made it clear the Agreement is not up for renegotiation.
It means there is a strong risk of Northern Ireland being indefinitely split from the United Kingdom. Whatever the mandate from the referendum was, breaking up our country was not one of them. For the backstop alone, this deal is not in the national interest as it risks the Union.
But there are other reasons too for opposing this deal. Lots of them. The PM’s deal would mean that we leave the EU at a price of at least £39bn but without many substantive issues agreed even as our hands are tied behind our back in the negotiations.
We will not be negotiating with the EU 27 as equal partners. In future, each EU member will have a veto on what we want. And we will be their supplicants. Rule takers not rule makers. We will be transformed from a country that ranks on a par with France and Germany into a nation of lobbyists.
It is not in our national interest. And nor is a deal that will leave us worse off. The Prime Minister has always evaded the question as to whether this deal will make us richer, because she knows it won’t. In essence she is asking MPs to vote for a third rate future for their constituents so she can say we’ve delivered Brexit. Out of the EU, and with no deal on services, which form 80 per cent of our economy, my constituents in East Surrey and many in this country will be poorer.
Whenever I have made these arguments some seasoned commentators and colleagues have turned round and said: “We agree with you Sam, but we are where we are and it’s all to play for in the second half of the match.” They say: “This is the best compromise we could have negotiated. You have to be pragmatic.”
I disagree with them. It confuses what is convenient in the short term with what is pragmatic. A clear-eyed assessment shows this deal is no way, in practice, to run our country, let alone take control of our economic and political destiny.
Let’s for a second assume the deal passes and reflect on what life for the UK would be like a year after. It’s often been said that the deal will give us closure. In truth, we would be in permanent negotiation. We will be going round the same Brexit loop we’ve been going round since 2016, amongst ourselves and with the EU. This is because all the big decisions on the future relationship have been kicked into the long grass. Brexit will still dominate the news, because it is the foundation stone on which our domestic and foreign policy objectives are built. And with our current fragile and fractured politics, a government with no majority, and an opposition only interested in implementing a Marxist Utopia, we will have to make lots of painful concessions to keep the show on the road. So rather than gaining closure and uniting the country, Blighty will be filled with buyer’s remorse. That is neither pragmatic nor principled. It is plain wrong.
Why No Deal is flawed
There is no simple, easy way of delivering Brexit but every week we get a new rebrand of ‘No Deal’. An ‘arranged No Deal’, a ‘managed no deal’, ‘WTO Brexit’ — these are all slogans. They are not plans in any meaningful sense of the term, on which our country can base its future.
No advanced economy trades solely on WTO terms, which only covers trade in goods. As our economy is predominantly services, we would urgently need to sign several trade deals at a time of maximum disruption in the country from a much weaker negotiating position even than with the PM’s deal.
If we want to trade, the most important deal we will strike is with the EU. Regardless of what terms we leave on, the EU needs to agree the terms on which we trade, and if we hold back the divorce payment as some of the “no dealers” suggest we should, any goodwill with the EU will evaporate. British pluck can go a long way, but it cannot defy the realities and rules of international trade and diplomacy.
People who want no deal should be straight with the public on why. They are single minded in their determination that disruption is a price worth paying to create tax-haven Britain, which is not what Leave voters in Sunderland or Mansfield voted for. It’s hijacking the referendum result to push an agenda that has little to do with our EU membership. The poor will suffer most from a chaotic, disruptive unplanned Brexit. The next generation would face a bleak future. And the public will not forgive those responsible.
Political leaders need to come clean on Brexit ,warts and all
All this while the clock has been ticking and now time has almost run out. If ever there was a moment for our political leaders across the spectrum to level with the people about what can be done, it is now. The public has a right to know.
Rather than giving parliament a false choice, it is time to think the unthinkable on Brexit including extending the Article 50 deadline and seeking a new referendum with a new set of questions. We now know more about the terms of departure and are better informed about the paths forward open to us. Parliament has been frustrated in its efforts to debate fully and properly. And the public has not been fully engaged on the complexities and trade-offs entailed in Brexit. A new referendum on the future we want may be the only way to resolve the deadlock in Parliament. Letting the public back into the process may be the only way of keeping them on board.
I did not want to be an ex-minister. I did not want to be here. I have worked for the last three years to implement Brexit in my ministerial roles. But to barrel forward with Brexit in the name of delivering the referendum result, when we know that future generations will look back and never forgive us is a dereliction of our duty as public servants. In public life we sometimes have to face up to difficult choices at difficult times. And if we cannot honestly recommend any of the deals in front of us we should have the courage to call a halt.
I hear many people say this will be a huge betrayal of referendum result, that it will be a rallying cry for the worst type of popular politics and politicians. The strange thing is the same people who suggest that somehow the public is ready to take to the streets, are those who say people are bored of Brexit and want to move on. The betrayal narrative has become the new project fear. Those who for years campaigned for a referendum and more direct democracy now say you can have too much democracy. But if Brexit goes ahead without more considered debate, the vast majority will feel betrayed whatever form it takes. Today we worry that certain sections of the public will be angry with this course, but if we do not bring the people along, we risk wider discontent.
Those who want No Deal to reheat their own versions of Thatcherism will cry betrayal if the PM gets her deal. The Corbynistas will blame the Conservatives for everything that goes wrong and have every incentive to do so. There will be people supporting the PM’s deal now trusting that somehow this is final who will be furious to find out that it isn’t the end of the matter at all, and in the ensuing negotiations, current wins may not survive.
And there will be lots of people — particularly the young – who will probably never forgive the Conservatives or perhaps politicians in general if the government tries to ram through something so obviously flawed.
To be clear, I do not wish to downplay concerns about what another referendum will entail. I share the fears and anxieties of many people. Countries like Spain, Canada, and Australia have had multiple referenda on the same issue, for many of us this was a singular and traumatic experience. But how can we be frightened of asking a more informed question?
And if I can turn my attention to the Conservative Party interest for a second, the effects of Brexit will reverberate for years to come, so it is in our interest that the country is brought along with eyes wide open.
Democracy, after all, is not a single event. It is a process, and often conditions demand multiple touches with citizens on seminal issues, especially at a time of historic flux. Asking the people the right questions about what future they want will ultimately strengthen the democratic basis for what is an irreversible decision.
In this crisis of our democracy, my answer is that there should be more democracy, not less.
Sam Gyimah’s article originally appeared on Medium