It is clear that as we agonise over Brexit, our country is slowly falling apart. As the roll out of Universal Credit continues apace, every week I see more and more truly desperate families terrified about what the future holds. Universal Credit represents the most obvious and horrible way in which the Conservative government is destroying Britain. Any Labour MP who has ever flirted even in the darkest recesses of their mind with leaving our party, the greatest vehicle for social justice ever invented, to join some imagined ‘centrist’ party need only remember that liberal Conservatives like George Osborne declare themselves ‘proud’ of the violence done to the social security system in this country. They need to be defeated, not embraced.
I believe that as firmly now as I did when I joined Labour aged 15 in Tony Blair’s first term; as firmly as I did when I became an MP in 2010; as firmly as I did when I was re-elected last year. The repeated re-election of Conservative governments does not shift my view that their policies are not merely wrong but frequently without moral justification. So when people tell me that one result from a referendum almost two and a half years ago binds us never to reopen the issue, I ask two things. First, I ask them why in that case 1975 wasn’t enough, for as Robert Saunders so well illustrates in his excellent book Yes to Europe, the notion that people were only voting on an economic relationship is at best an untruth. And I ask why referendum decisions have a sacrosanct status not afforded to parliamentary general elections: for everything else in our politics of parliamentary sovereignty can be turned upside down by a change of our national government.
I grew up in Sunderland and even when Parliament is sitting, I spend as much time as I can on the doorstep, at community events, visiting workplaces, and hosting public meetings. To me, actively going out to talk to the people I represent is really important, because you get to talk to people who don’t need your help with anything in particular and who, as they often see it, don’t like to make a fuss. We chat about what matters to our community, and I often ask people about their views on current national issues. If I relied for an understanding of what my constituents feel about any issue, Brexit included, on my postbag, my inbox, and the people who stop me in the street, I’d be more inclined to consider backing the outcome of Theresa May’s negotiations.
Instead, again and again, I meet people who wouldn’t dream of writing to me about their views, but who are now genuinely fearful about their jobs, and about the future for their children and our country, as the reality of Brexit draws nearer. Some of them voted Leave, and now regret it bitterly. Others didn’t vote in 2016, and now dearly wish they had. They don’t blame others, though the work of Carole Cadwalladr very much suggests they should. They speak openly to me once I’m there, but I know many of them would never seek me out, never ring, and never email. I know some colleagues get different feedback on the doorstep, and that’s hardly surprising: constituencies are different. To me, both direct engagement with my voters and following the polling give me insights into what is going on in my patch that I can’t get otherwise. I am always struck by the gap between what my constituents tell me when they have to make an effort to reach me, and what they tell me when I’m in front of them, often unannounced, asking their views.
That makes me ever more confident in the view that – for very different reasons – both Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn are right about the so-called deal which Theresa May has presented to Parliament. As it stands, we should vote against it. As Tony Blair says, the options in front of us are pointless – remaining within the orbit of the EU indefinitely but without influence or power – or painful, that is, leaving the European Union without agreement and subjecting our society and economy to a set of wrenching shocks. Of course, there are still plenty of my constituents who take a different approach on Brexit, but then, on any issue, there always are. As MPs we are ultimately there to decide, as well as to listen: we are elected to make judgements ourselves, not just to echo those of others.
I voted Remain in the referendum on 23 June 2016. I’d have voted Remain again in a referendum held any day since that. My beliefs about how our country needs to work closely with our allies and partners in Europe have not changed just because I have discovered others disagree with me. However, I thought it right that following the referendum result, the government should seek to negotiate terms with the rest of the EU. I didn’t wake up that fateful morning and immediately start imagining ways in which we could revisit the outcome. Reluctantly, I voted to clarify the means by which Article 50 could be invoked after the Supreme Court ruled that was necessary. But as the government announced red line after red line, many of them inconsistent with each other and together defining the weakness of Britain’s position in negotiations with our European partners, my heart sank. It is an unusual negotiating strategy to announce all aspects of your current and future approach to media outlets where they can be monitored by the other side. It became horribly clear to me that the government had not prepared itself at all for the scale of the challenge it faced.
In the twenty months since the fateful letter was sent to Brussels, we have seen the government get through Cabinet ministers as if they were going out of fashion, and crucially have seen the Conservatives lose any majority in Parliament for those red lines, for their stated objectives for leaving the European Union. There can be no doubt that what the Prime Minister has negotiated is preferable to leaving without a deal. I just don’t believe that it’s preferable to continued membership of the European Union. My constituents know that. I have made no secret of my views on the European Union. Even the Prime Minister herself, repeatedly pressed, cannot say that was she’s offering is better than the relationship we have now. There seems to be no majority in this Parliament, a different Parliament from the one which sent the 2016 referendum to the people, for either this deal or any particular outcome. I cannot support a deal which I believe will make my constituents poorer.
But in politics we all know it isn’t enough to know what you want. You have to have a way of making it happen. And at the time of writing, despite the best efforts of various Old Etonians, the Prime Minister remains in place. So the most obvious way of making anything happen is for the Prime Minister to pursue it. I spent over two years on the Home Affairs Select Committee, watching Theresa May for month after month. While her politics are not mine, I learnt to admire her resilience, her courtesy, and her near-total mastery of the detail of anything she might be asked about. I also learnt that she has real backbone. She does not back down, or reverse her policies, unless there is both overwhelming reason to do so and a route to do so by which she need not lose face, or at least, not lose much face. It is easy in opposition to conflate a minister’s reluctance to change policy with the reality that you simply disagree with them, but sticking to your guns and delivering determinedly on your political objectives is a trait we would be foolish to underrate.
And so to the point. There is one thing the Prime Minister could do to get my support, after a fashion, for her Brexit agreement. She could bind acceptance of the deal to a referendum on the deal: a referendum with two options – to remain in the European Union after all; or to leave on her terms in line with the deal. It is clear there is no majority either in Parliament or in the country for leaving without any deal at all: those who doubt that should remember how close the referendum was in the first place. Yet that remains the default position unless we find a way through it all. If Theresa May offered the people a choice between exit on the terms she has negotiated, and remaining in the European Union after all, then I would support that.
In April last year she put her party’s interest before the national interest, and got herself and our country into our current unholy mess. Now is her opportunity to atone for that. In the near future, it would probably split the Conservative Party in two. But it would be in the best interests of Britain, as she herself knows. And sometimes, as people keep telling us all, you have to put country before party.