Esther McVey is a former Work and Pensions Secretary, and is MP for Tatton.
In the nearly two years since the last general election, trust in politics has been stretched to breaking point. However, I fear it is nothing compared to the battering it is about to come under during the coming weeks and months. As the balance of power shifts from the Government to Parliament, in the event of a revised Brexit EU deal being rejected on 12 March, we should take a moment to think about what it means for trust in our politics.
By mid-March, the likelihood is that we will either see the Prime Minister’s deal accepted or we will have an extension to Article 50. Both of these options are going to have serious implications for trust not only in our party, but in our politics as a whole.
The vast majority of MPs made a promise to their voters to deliver the outcome of the EU referendum. While the outcome of the 2017 general election gave us an indecisive result, both main parties were clear in their commitments to deliver Brexit. Yet the past year has seen MPs indulge their own fixation with continuing EU membership rather than the promises they made to the electorate.
Whether they voted Remain or Leave most people just want us to get on with it. They recognise the importance of the democratic vote that we had. Parliament gave this decision to the people. It is simply not good enough to renege on this because MPs think they know better and don’t like the result.
When I resigned from Cabinet, I did so because I did not believe the Withdrawal Agreement honoured the vote to leave the EU. In my letter to the Prime Minister, I warned of the risk of losing trust with the public and that once it is gone, like the soul, it never returns. It’s a theme I have returned to many times since then. It is this loss of trust that will truly break our politics, and I shudder to think just what the consequences will be.
It should be seen as a bad omen that we are risking this severing of trust on the ten anniversary of the expenses crisis. Yet this has the potential to be even more serious. For whereas the expenses scandal exposed the personal probity of too many MPs, this breach of trust runs to the heart of how our democracy is supposed to work.
We have ended up here because some of the main players in Cabinet have only ever wanted to remain, and as such the Government’s approach has been based upon how much of the EU it could cling on to, and still claim that it has honoured the result. And so, as the time for passing the deal reaches the eleventh hour, we are presented not with a clean WTO Brexit as the alternative, but a set of options to kill off Brexit.
Supporters of a second referendum claim it is the only way out of this impasse, but it is an impasse of Parliament’s creation. It is a failure of those MPs who oppose Brexit to honour the instructions of the British people which has led us here. Although I think in truth the calls for another referendum are just a tactic: I suspect that reversing Brexit without a vote is their preferred outcome.
We might find that the consequences of this loss of trust are closer than we think. Nigel Farage has been relatively quiet in recent weeks, but be in no doubt he is sat there ready to roll out his betrayal bandwagon: he is just waiting to see what flavour that betrayal will take. Don’t get me wrong, it is not just the Conservatives who are risking losing trust over Brexit, Labour, too, has finally picked a side and has chosen the interests of its metropolitan members in London over those of its working class voters in the Midlands and the North.
We have a chance to prevent this rupture. Parliament can finally do what it committed to do when it legislated for a referendum and what most of us promised in the election – and we can ensure we fully leave the European Union.
I know I am more comfortable with a WTO outcome than some, and I would urge more people to get to know WTO, but only by embracing this are we likely to see a change in the behaviour of the EU. I am afraid that no one on the EU side has ever believed the Government when they have said ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. So when truly faced with No Deal, we may find that the EU is prepared to move away from their fixed position, listen, remove the backstop, and negotiate a free trade deal. If they are unwilling to budge, I think we will quickly find that No Deal is quite a bit more positive than we have been led to believe.
More than anything else, by genuinely delivering on our commitments we will find that it is still possible to restore the trust of Remain and Leave voters alike by just getting on with it, and then getting back to other domestic issues that have been sidelined for too long.