Gisela Stuart is Chair of Change Britain. She was Chair of Vote Leave, and is a former Health Minister.
Just over 18 months ago, the British people voted for a democratic future outside the EU. They took this bold step because they had confidence in their and this country’s ability to meet the challenges ahead.
As Chair of the official Vote Leave campaign, the announcement that the UK had voted ‘Out’ in the early hours of 24 June 2016 was the most significant moment in my political career. I was so proud of the British people who had seen through the distortions of Project Fear. They were brave and positive about their future – unlike much of the establishment, which was just comfortable with the way things are.
Big businesses and some politicians like the EU because it allows interest groups to lobby behind the scenes and you can never vote them out. But the British people wanted to take back control. They wanted to be able to vote for and remove the politicians who make their laws. Decisions about borders, money and trade should be made at Westminster, and not by nominated elites in Brussels.
A few months after the referendum, I – along with other Leave campaigners from the Left and the Right, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – decided to set up a new group called Change Britain. We were dedicated to making sure the result of the referendum is respected and carried through. Our aim is simple: to ensure that the Government delivers on the promises of Brexit that people voted for in their millions, especially that the UK is put back in charge of our immigration system, our laws and our future trading regime.
The Government’s approach began where the Vote Leave campaign left off – making the positive case for Brexit. The Prime Minister pledged in her Lancaster House Speech that the UK would leave the EU’s Single Market, allowing the UK to be back in control of its borders and its laws. She then promised to leave the EU’s Customs Union – making clear that it would be for elected politicians to decide who we sign trade deals with. I was greatly encouraged by the words of the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, and took heart that the Government would deliver what the British people had voted for.
However, in recent months we have seen what can only be described as a coordinated attempt by Remainers here in the UK – alongside officials and politicians in Brussels – to undermine this vision. Questionable long-term economic forecasts – not dissimilar to those we saw during the referendum campaign – have been leaked in an effort to destabilise the Brexit process. Threats emanate from Michel Barnier and other EU figures which are remarkably similar in tone and content to those campaigning for our continued membership here. People who voted for democratic accountability are labelled extremists or fantasists, when all they want is the ability to vote out those who make their laws. Indeed, it seems you can’t turn on the news these days without a pro-EU MP demanding that Britain leaves the EU in name only, but as good as stays in by continuing to accept laws, trade deals and the free movement of people, as well as paying into the EU budget. .
Let’s be clear: any deal that leaves the UK aligned with EU rules, which requires our immigration regime to treat European nationals significantly different than those from non-EU countries, or which deprives us of control over our trading future would not be honouring the referendum result.
And let’s also be clear that the desired end-point for people making this argument is not in fact a ‘soft Brexit’: what they want is ‘no Brexit’. Only recently, we saw proof that wealthy Remainers are trying to put pressure on the Government to ignore the wishes of 17.4 million people – planning to reverse Brexit entirely. Once again, we’re hearing their calls for a second referendum – with claims that Britain could go back to the EU, say sorry and pretend the Brexit vote never happened. This is nothing but a refusal to accept the result of the referendum.
It is also fundamentally dishonest. The EU we voted to leave doesn’t exist anymore. Since the referendum, Brussels has made no secret of its intention to reach even further across Europe and centralise more powers. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. A single currency requires something that has the powers equivalent to a government. For the Euro to become an effective currency, the EU has to integrate more deeply.
The French President has made his dream of a United States of Europe clear. The bureaucrats in Brussels are happy to oblige. Jean-Claude Juncker wants every EU member state to have the euro, and has called for more countries to join the passport-free Schengen area. This is not an EU that I think even many of the 48 per cent of people who voted Remain would want to be part of, let alone choose to re-join.
Despite this lack of public appetite, the voices of those who want to keep the UK tied to Brussels are gaining traction – largely, I believe, due to the Government’s public silence on key Brexit issues. I know from personal experience how tricky and time-consuming negotiations with the EU can be, but I sense a growing concern amongst both politicians and voters that the Government is sliding towards unpalatable compromises. Ministers must steel their resolve, stay true to the principles that the Prime Minister set out in her original Brexit speech, and be bold in committing to that positive and united vision for Brexit.
This is a moment which will shape our country for generations to come, and will outlast anyone’s political career. So as the Cabinet discusses its plan for the UK outside the EU, all its members must put country before any other ambitions they may have, and unite in giving the public a concrete idea of the new relationship we want to have with our European partners. As well as providing clarity, such boldness would put paid to those pro-EU campaigners who doubt this country’s entrepreneurial energy and ability for renewal, and help carry the support of people who voted both Leave and Remain in good faith that, whatever the referendum result, the Government would deliver on it.
I urge the Government to be bold and clear in its objective to negotiate a clean Brexit. If we believe that trust in politicians and institutions matters, then the Prime Minister must deliver what the public voted for and what she promised. If we don’t take back control of our borders, our laws, our trade and money, then it will have been a failure of our political class and a failure of democracy.