“It is a pleasure to be here at Reform, talking to you all.
I don’t go out much any more. In fact over the past year I have become increasing reclusive.
Whether it’s the constant presence of the microphones outside my house or the fact that everywhere I go people ask me “what’s happening?”.
But what that question actually means is: “what’s going to happen next?”. And the one thing that is clear, at this particular point, is that nobody can answer that.
Nobody knows what is going to happen next – certainly not the Cabinet, nor can the Prime Minister. We are in the most uncertain and unpredictable times. So instead of speculating about what the next few weeks and months might hold, I’d like to look at why we are here.
Fundamentally this political crisis comes from a conflict within democracy. What we are seeing is the collision of Parliamentary democracy with direct democracy.
Or to put it simply: the clash between the referendum of 2016 – which gave us a mandate to leave – and the Parliament elected in 2017 which can’t agree on how to leave.
These are two, conflicting and contradictory forces – but they are both democratic forces. So how do we deal with that?
Let me put the case for the primacy of the Referendum.
It was a simple choice. Stay or go. No conditions, no caveats …. no explanations of how.
We may reflect that it should have had some of those things, but it didn’t. The controversy with the EU did not come out of the blue; many groups have been campaigning for years – this was their chance. Should we stay or should we go?
I campaigned hard to stay. And I said many times, “if you vote to leave then that’s it – we’re out”. I may have made some more colourful comments about the need to avoid getting in a car with Boris Johnson (advice I recently failed to take myself …) but mostly it was an earnest, passionate campaign about why we should stay in the EU.
Certainly we were up against a campaign group that was loose and free with the facts. But I, and others, pointed that out at the time. We called out the lies – and the public still voted to leave.
So as I have always acknowledged, we must leave.
There are consequences, difficulties, potentially significant job losses – but we knew that then and said so. And nonetheless, the public voted to Leave.
We must respect that vote.
However, as we all know, it isn’t that straightforward.
Here is where we come to the clash – the conflict between the referendum and MPs.
The MPs who were voted into Parliament in 2017 largely stood on manifestos that promised exit. But none specified how.
My strong view has always been that leaving without a deal would be a failure.
The answer is never to throw your toys out of the pram and quit.
The PM himself has said leaving without a deal would be a failure of the negotiations.
So when it became apparent that Theresa May was not going to get her deal through Parliament on Conservative and DUP votes, I thought we should try working with Labour to find a compromise deal. I wanted to seek compromise in the House of Commons to find a way to pass the Withdrawal Agreement. It is still infuriating that so many Labour backbenchers who should have known better decided to throw out a deal for nothing other than party political reasons. Instead, Labour MPs largely pretend to want to leave: but would not support the Government withdrawal deal, or work with Conservatives to find the compromise.
Conservative MPs largely do want to leave; but the hard Eurosceptics want to do so entirely on their own terms.
Indeed the only thing that commands a certain majority in the House of Commons is that we should avoid ‘No Deal’.
Meanwhile the EU election in May showed us that in the rest of the country, No Deal is the single most popular platform.
How can we square this circle?
When I, earlier this year, gulped in horror at the planning, costs, consequences of a no deal outcome, a senior MP said to me: “but what price democracy?”
To her, once it became clear that Parliament would not coalesce around a deal, No Deal was the only possible outcome because democracy had to be respected – at all costs.
So at this stage the major split is between those MPs who who put the economic and security consequences of no deal, ahead of the agreement to deliver on the outcome of the referendum – and those that don’t.
And although you don’t hear it very often, both positions are reasonable, arguable and democratic.
MPs have a responsibility to their constituents. Many, look at the manufacturing companies providing essential jobs and hear warnings about job losses if we leave without a deal. They feel – and I agree – that they owe their constituency their judgements, and not just representation.
So we are left with a dilemma: how can we respect the direct democracy of the referendum, while also fulfilling our duty as MPs to protect our communities?
We have to acknowledge that this is a genuine dilemma.
MPs who believe we owe it to the electorate to leave at any cost, have a reasonable argument to make. So do those who fear the fall-out of No Deal.
But instead of reasoned argument, we have campaigns of fury. Both sides claim the high moral ground, both claim to acting for the country, and ultimately we end up with a dangerous rhetoric of betrayal and war.
This polarisation is deeply damaging to all of us. Campaigns that pit the People against Parliament are terrifying. This deliberate stoking of “righteous” anger is eroding our trust in politics, but more fundamentally it chips away at our society.
We must not let this continue. We have to find a way to accept and acknowledge reasonable differences. It is possible: Mark Francois, Jo Swinson and I all served as Ministers in the same government, so I know it can be done!
Politicians have a responsibility to acknowledge the crisis we are in, and to find solutions. To use guile, persuasion, intelligence to find the compromise to reconcile the conflicting duties of the referendum and their responsibilities.
I do not pretend that this is easy. Our country is deeply divided on Europe.
The stark choice we now face being presented with is: revoke Article 50 to remain or leave with No Deal.
Choosing either of those paths would wholly alienate those on the other side of the argument. It would risk fuelling the anger, resentment and divisions we are already facing.
The alternative is that we choose a compromise – like the Withdrawal Agreement. A ‘middle path’ risks disappointing everyone. I continue to believe that compromise is the right approach.
But it is extremely difficult for elected politicians to advocate policies that are literally nobody’s first choice.
We must also ask ourselves some tough questions about whether our institutions remain fully fit for purpose. A House of Commons divided and a House of Lords that is bloated have been unable to solve this logjam.
Is now finally the time to put proper cross-party efforts into electoral reform? Would a system of more proportional representation have seen our institutions better able to respect the results of elections?
Most people acknowledge we have to leave, but we can’t keep trying bulldoze Brexit through a Parliament where MPs take a different view of their democratic responsibilities.
The tragedy here is not that one side is anti-democratic, is that fundamentally our democracy has delivered two opposing views.
We can pick a side, demonise our opponents and gamble everything in the hope that ultimately our team wins.
Or we can take the heat out of the debate – respect that we can have honourable disagreements, commit to finding common ground and ultimately accept that the price of unity is compromise.