Sarah Wollaston: Labour frontbenchers must deliver their party’s own promise and back a People’s Vote

Posted On: 
14th December 2018

It is vanishingly unlikely that the Prime Minister can get her deal through the Commons. Parliament has reached an impasse. What’s needed is a blinding flash of the obvious – we need to go back to the people, writes Sarah Wollaston

Chuka Umunna (front left), Caroline Lucas (3rd right) and Justine Greening (2nd right) handing in Final Say and People's Vote petitions
PA Images

The last thing we needed in the midst of a constitutional crisis was a leadership election and I’m glad that the ERG, led by Mr Rees-Mogg, failed in its bid to oust the Prime Minister. It did at least demonstrate that there is no majority for their vision of a hard Brexit, even within the Conservative party at Westminster, let alone the wider House of Commons.

Having to return for a leadership election won’t have helped, but no one expects the PM to be able to negotiate further changes to the previously agreed legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement, making it vanishingly unlikely that this and the accompanying Future Framework will be approved when they return for a meaningful vote.

What’s needed is a blinding flash of the obvious, that Parliament has reached an impasse, and that none of the possible versions of Brexit will command a majority, including ‘Norway’, with or without a customs union.

As a result, we face an increasing risk of falling over the cliff into No Deal with no transition period, a situation for which we are woefully unprepared. No responsible government could knowingly allow us to inflict the costs and consequences on individuals, families, communities, businesses and our wider economy.

The Prime Minister needs to acknowledge the deadlock and start working on plan B. She could and should take her deal direct to the people with the simple question, is this the Brexit you voted for or would you rather remain with the deal we already have? The WA and FF are Brexit reality, warts and all, and a long way from the wild promises of the referendum campaign.

There are those, including Theresa May, who fear that a referendum on the final deal would undermine faith in democracy. She has spoken repeatedly of people who voted for the first time in the referendum, but that group includes young people and they voted overwhelmingly to remain. Eighteen and nineteen-year-olds did not get to vote at all but are being dragged into Brexit without ever having had a say. The maths on public support for the deal do not stack up. Forty-eight per cent voted to remain and so did not want any version of Brexit, for those who did, many feel the same as the most vocal Brexiteer parliamentarians and Leave campaigners, that the deal does not deliver their vision of leaving the EU.

In my view, you do not undermine democracy by checking that you have obtained informed consent from the public. This is not about the EU demanding that we ask again, the People’s Vote campaign is a grassroots movement desperately seeking the opportunity to have a final say on Brexit reality as opposed to Brexit fantasy.

It is over two years since the result of a referendum won by a narrow margin and where there are now serious questions over the practices and funding sources of one of the campaign groups. The original referendum unleashed division on a scale unseen for generations as a result of xenophobic targeted campaigning and wildly misleading claims.

These are not reasons to shrink from a further referendum but to make sure that future campaigns are conducted with decency. Those divisions will only be made worse if we carry on regardless, imposing a Brexit without valid consent and deliver nothing but a weakened economy and a government paralysed by Brexit process that then fails to focus the underlying drivers for the result of the original referendum and other important areas of policy.

As chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee and as the MP for Totnes, I want to be examining the Ten Year Plan for the NHS and the Social Care Green Paper, not finding these kicked into the long grass by Brexit or worse still, their funding choked off by a stalled post Brexit economy.

We can get there but only if the Labour front bench delivers on its own promise to back a People’s Vote. They need to do so and quickly.

A cross-party group of MPs stands ready with an informed consent amendment to the approval motion demanding a People’s Vote on the final deal.

Sarah Wollaston is Conservative MP for Totnes and chair of the Health and Social Care committee.