Fifty years ago, looking through his small triangular window at the surface of the moon, Neil Armstrong realised his Apollo spacecraft was in trouble. The autopilot was taking the crew straight down the lunar highway to touch down in a crater the size of a football stadium, strewn with hazards, four miles off-target. Armstrong’s years of experience as a test pilot in the simulator, and flying combat missions over Korea, led to this moment. He took a dramatic and decisive last-minute decision to avert disaster, and switched from autopilot to manual control.
Today, our Parliament is on an autopilot trajectory taking us towards disaster, and it needs to firmly reassert itself. It is not too late to avoid a crash-landing. But only just.
There is no parliamentary majority for a no deal exit from the European Union (EU) by Boris Johnson’s deadline of 31 October. What the prime minister is banking on, though, is that those of us who are opposed to no-deal Brexit, from Tories who want a trade deal, through to Independent, Lib Dem, and Labour MPs who want to stop Brexit altogether, will never be able to agree on a plan to prevent him.
With time running out, a hard Brexit is the default option. Johnson looks set to deliver the anti-Europeans’ 40-year project and become the populist darling of the xenophobic right. The silent majority are the soft Brexit and Remain-supporting MPs who are divided and marooned in parties captured by their extremes, held hostage by their respective leaderships.
Though the old ties of tradition, party loyalties, and old friendships have proved strong, we both have some experience of breaking those ties. We know first hand how hard and discomforting it is to leave your party behind. It should never be a decision taken lightly. But these are such extraordinary times, with talk of food rationing, civil disorder, and the Queen being lined up to pronounce on complex constitutional matters, that we need extraordinary measures.
After three years, Theresa May has failed, Parliament has failed, the Leader of the Opposition has failed, and we are hurtling towards disaster. Pro-European MPs are just as much to blame as hard-line (and shy) Brexiteers. Throughout this most crucial of months, our efforts have consistently been a day late and more than a dollar short.
All of the talk of a people’s vote (which remains our preferred option), revoking Article 50, stopping the recess or bringing forward a vote of no confidence to trigger an election came to nothing as Parliament shut up shop for the summer. Now, it is hard to see how an election could definitely come before Brexit, without a constitutional crisis.
When MPs return for the short two-week session in September, we must get a grip on events, and deliver an uncompromising plan to take back control. Our options are limited as October looms, but they must include an immediate vote of no confidence in Johnson, followed swiftly by the establishment of a new government of national unity under a new prime minister, with majority support from MPs of every hue who put country before party or career.
This would be a temporary government with a single objective – preventing a no-deal Brexit. A people’s vote, and a general election, should follow soon after that mission is accomplished. Crucially, the national unity government must be waiting in the wings before the vote of no confidence, with an agreed figurehead ready to take over. This cannot be the current leader of the opposition, who lacks the moral or political authority, and who plainly supports Brexit. We should also assume that Johnson will pursue any course, no matter how unconstitutional or anti-Parliamentary, to get what he wants.
Outside of the two legacy parties, the signs of this new way of working, and paths to providing leadership, are encouraging. The Unite to Remain alliance is demonstrating political potency in the wake of the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election success.
But smaller parties and Independents in Parliament can’t do it by ourselves. Whatever course of action is decided by MPs, it will take real courage from Labour moderates and one-nation Conservatives to meet the scale of the national emergency we face. It will mean ignoring dark mutterings about deselection and trigger ballots. It will mean defying the whips and party leaderships, and casting aside tribalism; for some, it may be the last big thing they do in politics. But they will find themselves on the right side of history, earning the gratitude of the British people spared from catastrophe. It is time for MPs to defy the autopilot and switch to manual drive.
Luciana Berger and Gavin Shuker are independent MPs.