Gisela Stuart is Chair of Change Britain. She is a former Health Minister.
Successful or not, these are the final days of Theresa May’s negotiations and, as with all EU negotiations, they are getting heated as time runs out. So far, so predictable. But as the media focuses ever more tightly on Downing Street and the Commons, and MPs tour studios promoting solutions from second votes with two options or second votes with three options to Norway, EEA, the Customs Union, a customs union, backstops and backstops to backstops, it may be a good time to remember what this is all about.
It’s about implementing a direct mandate given to the Government and MPs in Parliament by the people they entrusted with the decision of whether we should remain in the European Union or leave. It was to be a generational decision – accompanied by the promise that whatever they decided, the Prime Minister would implement.
The mandate then was and still is to leave the European Union. That means that the UK has the final say on laws, borders, taxes and trade deals. The mandate, delivered in the referendum on a turnout of 72 per cent and with a clear majority of 3.8 per cent, was accepted by the two main political parties in the 2017 general election. The Liberal Democrats, who promised to overturn the referendum, were trounced.
Parliament endorsed the time table by voting to trigger Article 50, thus giving the Government two years to complete a Withdrawal Agreement before the end of the multi annual financial framework, the European Parliamentary elections and a new EU Commission.
Now, as the months count down, the deal that the Government is trying to secure is being rejected by MPs who campaigned for Leave and Remain alike. No one deal, we are told, is capable of winning a majority in Parliament. Brexit is unworkable. The whole project was doomed from the start. We need another referendum, where we can change our minds and vote to go back in.
Three observations may help to add clarity. Whilst politicians in Westminster have argued with themselves, there is no evidence that the public has changed its mind. Another vote would undermine the validity of the first, but probably produce the same result. Fearing that outcome, some are already proposing a vote with multiple options and an alternative voting system, overlooking the irony that AV was rejected in an earlier referendum.
The EU has identified and pursued its strategic goals and remained united. UK negotiators have failed to split EU capitals from one another and from the Commission, while at the same time seeming ready to compromise at every opportunity to avoid the appearance of conflict. Our political classes have been out-performed. They have lacked clarity of purpose and vision. Even basic skills of political management and analysis have seemed woefully lacking.
One reason that the political classes were so surprised by the 2016 vote to Leave is because it was in part a referendum on their failure to understand or engage with the experience of ordinary voters in towns and villages across the country, and on their tendency to get stuck within their own unconscious bias about what ought to be in the best interest of the majority of the UK.
The referendum offered a second chance; an opportunity to start listening, think about national renewal and to bring politics home to communities across the country as we took back control from the EU. Instead, political leaders in Westminster are signalling they have learned very little from 2016.
What is to be done? Chequers and the backstop do not allow us to leave the EU, and there is a real danger that if we fail to deliver Brexit the breakdown of trust between London and the rest of the country will be hard to repair. In Westminster, the hope will be that Parliament can take control, postpone Brexit so that we can have another referendum or have time for a change in government to refresh the negotiating team.
The most significant point of Jo Johnson’s resignation statement was his reference to the failure of statecraft. He was right. As Mervyn King put it recently, you have to ask yourself how the world’s sixth largest economy, with a reputation for political stability and administrative capacity, has got itself into such a mess. If government, the civil service and MPs are unable to deliver Brexit, the correct diagnosis is not that Brexit is impossible, but rather that our politicians have failed.
It’s not too late. There is still time for a change in policy, for adoption of a comprehensive free trade deal on offer from the EU and applied to the entire UK, which even now could provide a way forward. Faster and more comprehensive preparation for departure on WTO terms would both strengthen the UK’s negotiating position and give us another way out as an independent and self-governing country.
Such a change, however, requires a grasp of statecraft we have so far found lacking. It is what the people voted for – but we may find our political class are found wanting.