John Penrose is a former Cabinet Office Minister and is MP for Weston-super-Mare.
There’s a weary old sameness to the Brexit debate at the moment. It feels like groundhog day – endlessly re-running the polarised referendum campaign that became so divisive.
After voting to leave the European Union everyone is, rightly and understandably, focused on the terms and type of Brexit deal which will be agreed between the UK and the EU. But leaving also creates a bigger, broader opportunity; a moment when we can and should think more deeply about other, fundamental issues for the UK’s future, which we haven’t needed to confront during the 40 years we’ve spent under the EU’s umbrella.
This is why simply repackaging ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ into ‘Soft Brexit’ and ‘Hard Brexit’ is becoming increasingly frustrating for those of us in the middle: those who have accepted the democratic verdict from the referendum and think it would be wrong to unpick it. Who welcome the fact that the referendum campaign motivated a huge number of people to take part in the political process for the first time, but who believe that many of the choices being offered are too divisive and simplistic.
If we keep picking over the bones of old battles, we will never heal the wounds of a 52/48 election result. As a country, we have to come together to make the best of the decision we have collectively taken. And as MPs, we have to react positively, optimistically and maturely as we try to make sense of the mandate given to us by the British people. Which is why I’ve decided to do two things in Parliament to help move the Brexit debate forwards.
First, I’ve tabled a Parliamentary Motion (Early Day Motion #655) which is simplicity itself. It says: ‘That this House supports the triggering of Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union according to the Government’s timetable.’
Supporting it will let MPs show the Supreme Court Justices where they stand on triggering Article 50, after the recent High Court judgement threw a king-sized spanner in the works. It will demonstrate how we’re willing to unite to deliver the referendum result, and that we aren’t interested in using the courts to delay or, even worse, completely derail the democratic verdict of the referendum.
And we’ll see who doesn’t support it too. Some MPs (step forward the Liberal Democrats) say they will respect the result of the referendum, but only if all sorts of conditions are met. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to spot the obvious clues, that the conditions will add up to something which either makes Brexit impossible, or tangles it up in thickets of red tape to delay it forever.
Of course there are different views on what an EU exit should look like. But if we start bickering about them before we’ve even begun our journey to leave the EU, we will never take the first step. So I doubt many LibDems will support the motion, since derailing Brexit is pretty much their plan, but I hope everyone else will take the chance to unite and show they’re committed to delivering what the people voted for.
The second thing I’ve started in Parliament is a cross-party group of MPs committed to delivering the ‘Best Brexit’. The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Best Brexit includes MPs from all parties, from all parts of the country, some who voted leave and others who voted remain. Our aim is simple: to cut out the political slogans and to cut straight to the substance of establishing what the UK’s Best Brexit will look like.
At our first meeting we were delighted to welcome the CBI’s Carolyn Fairbairn and the TUC’s Frances O’Grady, and found huge areas of common ground where both business and unions agree on what’s needed from a Best Brexit deal. We plan to follow this up with evidence from experts in trade negotiations, security, migration and other fields, and publish the results in partnership with the Social Market Foundation.
The meeting showed that the Brexit debate can and should move on. We don’t have to spend the next two years endlessly and aridly repeating the referendum campaign. Instead, we should start looking at the detail of a potential deal, because we won’t move forward until we understand which negotiating options are vital for the UK, and which are only nice-to-have. Most negotiations start off at extremes and end up with compromises by both sides, so we have to know what matters most to each of the other 27 EU countries too, because knowing the cards in your opponents’ negotiating hand is a huge advantage. And we have to understand what matters to non-EU countries as well.
Once we’ve understood all that, we can weigh up the costs and benefits to find the best deal. So when the Ministerial negotiating teams are ready to publish the terms of their draft deal, it won’t come as a bolt from the blue.
We will have done what we were elected to the Commons to do, so voters, citizens and MPs will be ready to understand what tradeoffs the Government has had to make, and why. Not on the basis of ideology, or tribal purity, but based on what delivers the most jobs, security and wealth for the UK as a whole. It’s the only way we will heal our divided society, and bring the country back together too.