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28 November 2018

Alan Johnson’s Diary: Why I can’t see much wrong with Theresa May’s Brexit agreement

It seems to me to be the kind of deal that a 52/48 referendum result requires.

By Alan Johnson

Since leaving parliament my visits to London are sporadic and I’m always glad to get home to East Yorkshire. Unusually, I have a full week of commitments down south, beginning with a Guardian event chatting with Amber Rudd about our shared experience of being home secretary.

This has to be cancelled at the last minute on the reasonable grounds that Amber has been restored to the cabinet as Work and Pensions Secretary. The Guardian informs me that the gig is off but I am pleasantly surprised to receive an emailed apology from Amber herself. Knowing how stressful and manic taking over a new department is I regard this thoughtfulness as being much to her (universal?) credit.

The deal we deserve

The news is dominated by Theresa May’s settlement with the EU, which is the only topic for discussion on This Week, my late-night liaison with Andrew Neil and Michael Portillo on BBC One.

I must be missing something because unlike Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, I can’t actually see much wrong with the agreement. It seems to me to be the kind of deal that a 52/48 referendum result requires. After the shocking outcome of David Cameron’s folly in June 2016, the majority of my former colleagues on both sides of the House wanted to remain, but respected the outcome of the referendum and were determined to retain the closest possible relationship with our European partners.

I am firmly in the Norway camp and this deal keeps that option open while protecting EU migrants, finalising the divorce bill and ensuring no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

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The “future relationship” bit was always going to be hearts and flowers stuff, but Labour’s objective of remaining in the customs union is still in play. Indeed, the deal instigates the softest of Brexits and can even be said to meet Labour’s six tests, apart from “retaining the exact same benefits”, which was only ever an attempt to immortalise David Davis’s vainglorious promise.

Some on the Labour benches see the meaningful vote as being an opportunity to press for either a “people’s vote”, as if the one in June 2016 was for androids, or a general election, as if the one in June 2017 would have led to a different outcome if only Labour had won.

The great economist JK Galbraith described politics as being the art of choosing between the unpalatable and the disastrous. We can only hope that parliament chooses wisely.

Bobbies not on the beat

The BBC report on policing in Hartlepool is truly horrifying. After budget cuts of almost £40m across Cleveland, a 37 per cent reduction in police numbers and the switch of a custody suite to Middlesbrough, there isn’t a single police officer available in Hartlepool on a Saturday night.

The Tories’ systematic destruction of neighbourhood policing since 2010 has progressed to the stage where a town of 80,000 people has no cops available at the time they are needed the most. Labour needs to make this its flagship domestic issue, recognising that, as usual, it’s the poorest communities that are bearing the brunt. When Cameron used to talk about Broken Britain I thought it was a criticism rather than a policy objective.

Crimes against pop

On Saturday evening I am onstage at the Cambridge Literary Festival with the music journalist and writer David Hepworth. Tom Gatti of this parish (NS head of books and features) moderates our discussion on “Pop, Politics and Passion”.

David’s book about 1971 being rock’s annus mirabilis created much fevered debate when it was published a couple of years ago. Some begged to differ, pointing out that ’71 was the year when those two pop classics, “Grandad” by Clive Dunn and “Ernie (the Fastest Milkman in the West)” by Benny Hill, were released. As David suggests pithily to an audience member, if you believe a different year to be worthy of the accolade, go and write your own bloody book.

In 1971 I was a postman engaged in an all-out seven-week strike. David tells me that this delayed the release of Nick Drake’s album Bryter Layter. I’m sure that if the 250,000 members of the Union of Post Office Workers (as was) knew they were engaged in such cultural vandalism they would have thought twice about going on strike.

Losing control

While in Cambridge I catch up with my good friend (and former boss at the Df E) Charles Clarke, who lives there now. On Tuesday Charles and I write a piece about freedom of movement, pointing out that Britain could “take back control” of its borders by applying existing EU rules, including introducing a workers’ registration scheme as well as the kind of hi-tech, digital identity card system that operates in every major EU country.

Contrary to the rubbish spouted about Labour having an “open door” policy, net migration reached its record level of 333,000 under Cameron and May, the very people who pledged to reduce it to the tens of thousands. The release of this statistic on 29 May 2016, a few weeks before EU referendum day, was the biggest single reason the Leave side won.

May probably thought that the reference to the end of free movement in the “future relationship” document would be enough to sell her deal, only to find that the very act of voting to Leave seems to have reduced the importance of immigration as an issue of public concern. Charles and I remain convinced that it is only lying dormant and that controlling immigration needs to be an essential part of any argument about which direction the country goes in after the meaningful vote on 11 December.

“In My Life: A Music Memoir” by Alan Johnson is published by Bantam Press

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This article appears in the 28 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexit fantasy died