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I was sceptical for many months about the merits of a second referendum, but I am one of the reluctant converts reflected in the indicative votes

I was sceptical for many months about the merits of a second referendum, but I am one of the reluctant converts reflected in the indicative votes
5 min read

Be it customs union or the PM’s deal, advocates of these unedifying compromise Brexits need to put their option to the public. Even at this terrifying late hour there is still time to make that happen, says John Woodcock MP.


A bewildered and frustrated public understandably want to hold people responsible for the unfolding Brexit catastrophe and MPs are the latest villains for refusing to compromise.

We had the chance to reach a deal. Arrogant self serving retrenchment kicked in when we should have accepted one – any - of the options put forward to avoid the seismic economic damage that will be caused by leaving without any agreement in place.

The angry voices may be right. Maybe MPs like me made a fundamental mistake last night by refusing to endorse either of the softer Brexit options that were trying to find an acceptable middle ground. Like probably the vast majority of my colleagues, I lie awake at night playing over and over in my head the choices I have made and those that may lie head. Any decision maker who is not doubting their actions in this crisis probably should not be making decisions at all.

Led by Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin, it seems that parliament’s focus over the next two days will rightly be on how we can reach agreement with the EU to continue the search for an acceptable compromise.

But consider this. Surely the root of this national crisis is at root triggered by the fact that it has turned out that there is no acceptable compromise Brexit. This is not a case of holding out for a car in your preferred colour red when all the dealer has is blue or green. Or choosing to move to an area of town on which you are not particularly keen, knowing you will get another chance to move again in the future. In fact, two years of negotiation has made clear that all the options left on the table strategically downgrade the UK, perhaps irreversibly. A customs union, the customs union, the common market 2.0 and the prime minister’s deal are all just moderately different points along the scale of trading economic harm for the surrender of sovereignty to EU institutions over which we will no longer have any influence.

Opposition voices denounce those who refused to compromise around one of the softer Brexit options with the same passion they denounced those Labour MPs who last week were considering compromising on the prime minister’s withdrawal agreement and political declaration because it was an Evil Tory Brexit. This absurd tribalism aside, we should reflect on whether we actually have a mandate to deliver any of the available options without a confirmatory vote from the public.

I was sceptical for many months about the merits of a second referendum. It would undoubtedly be torrid and I am deeply uncertain what the public would conclude. But I am one of the reluctant converts reflected in the indicative votes.

Conservatives who have reconciled themselves to the proposal like Huw Merriman may well be right in saying a confirmatory vote is now the only way out of this mess. An equally compelling argument is that none of the options being discussed are the Brexit that anyone was told they were voting for in the referendum.

If my post bag is anything to go by, the large majority of my constituents who still want Brexit think that neither a customs union, continuing in the single market nor Theresa May’s deal is an acceptable form of it. I fear that the passage of time would simply confirm their suspicions. Our country will be poorer, they will not feel more free or in control, and the UK will have given away the chance to exercise influence on the world stage and over major areas of its own economy.

Nor does the referendum give a mandate for no deal. It is undeniably what some want now, including a vocal number of my own constituents. Some may claim that it what they had in mind all along, but it is a world away from the future arrangement described by the Leave campaign.

And we certainly do not have a mandate to Remain without being told to do so by the public in another referendum. I am among those prepared to be open that I would advocate revoking Article 50 if it is literally the only way to avoid the appalling damage and potential loss of life in a No Deal exit. But it is no doubt that choosing to remain in those circumstances would represent a terrible failure by government and parliament.

Given the reality is so different from the promise, any one of these three basic alternatives should be endorsed by the public before it is enacted. Be it customs union or the PM’s deal, advocates of these unedifying compromise Brexits need to put their option to the public. Even at this terrifying late hour there is still time to make that happen. Many MPs would be prepared to endorse any of them on that condition, hopefully enough to break the deadlock.

 

John Woodcock is the Independent MP for Barrow and Furness.

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