Justine Greening is a former Secretary of State for Education, and is MP for Putney.
Local election results show that Cabinet indecision is hollowing out support for the Conservative Party, and that’s even before the new Brexit Party has fielded a candidate. Last summer, it was clear that the Prime Minister’s halfway house Brexit deal was the worst of all worlds, unlikely to carry public opinion or a Parliamentary vote. Yet the Cabinet carried on regardless in the face of opinion polls showing it is even less popular than the poll tax, with just 12 per cent public support.
Nine months later, Cabinet are still no further forward in their Brexit analysis. Their unwillingness to take political decisions in the real world makes them increasingly look like the the political equivalent of captains on the Titanic, simultaneously rearranging the deck chairs whilst also blaming the iceberg for not getting out of the way. As we saw in the local elections, this position is sinking our Party and it must change.
Their head in the sand approach has directly led to the establishment of the Brexit Party, pitching itself as the party of “Brexit means Brexit” – and they weren’t even fighting the recent local elections. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are now resurgent, capitalising on the millions of people who feel Brexit is a mess, or who never wanted to leave the EU in the first place. The party faces an attack on both flanks.
Cabinet Ministers conveniently interpret the election results as a message to “get on with it” and go full steam ahead with their halfway house Brexit approach, but if the “it” is a deal with Jeremy Corbyn, that’s been anathema to Conservative voters and activists.
It’s just as well that it’s also beyond Corbyn to take a decision on Brexit that cuts across his Labour Party – so they’re paying the price too. But the country has clearly had enough of Brexit fudge.
The latest Government spin is to call any different views “extreme”. That’s a deeply unconstructive approach to engaging in the debate about what comes next on such a key decision for Britain. What’s needed now is both realism and pragmatism. Realism about Parliamentary gridlock and the public’s rejection of a halfway house Brexit. Pragmatism that a Conservative Government narrowly passing a customs union version of Brexit, but reliant on two thirds of the Parliamentary support coming from Labour MPs, is not a sustainable strategy. To have such a controversial approach to Brexit, passed in such a way by Parliament, won’t bring the public on side or the country back together.
The biggest fallacy of all is that if we can just get the Prime Minister’s deal over the line we’ll have ‘done’ Brexit and we can get on to “all the other things people really care about”. Cabinet Ministers now routinely make this case.
This is completely unrealistic. As Government has to re-engineer Britain post Brexit, it will dominate our politics for the next decade. We should be frank about that and the fact that it inevitably squeezes the political bandwidth for other issues, from the improved social mobility I campaign for through the Social Mobility Pledge, to housing, social care and everything else. And we should also be realistic that polling analysis is clear that our Brexit stance deters voters under the age of 45 from supporting us.
The Conservative Party has always been prepared to be upfront about the challenges our country faces. In 2010, we took a decision to be honest about the disastrous state of the nation’s finances being left by Labour. I was part of that incoming Treasury team that produced an emergency budget to save Britain from the brink of bankruptcy. But we had to keep winning the argument about why it mattered every week, to keep the public with us. Tackling the deficit wasn’t a “moment” and neither is Brexit. It’s more than just a vote in Parliament.
For Brexiteers, I recognise the political difficulty of the position that a soft Brexit strategy has got us into. But it’s clear too now that Parliament will not vote through a hard Brexit. If the Conservative Party gets a new leader who supports hard Brexit, they could of course try to change the Parliamentary maths by calling another general election, but it’s a roll of the dice that could see us out of power, unable to deliver anything, having handed the keys of Number Ten to Jeremy Corbyn. My view is that the only way there’ll ever be a deliverable mandate for a WTO Brexit that can get though Parliament is if it’s the consensus of the way forward from the British people from a confirmatory referendum.
Ministers need to be pragmatic that Parliament is deadlocked. This Brexit Parliament has rejected every Brexit option – hard or soft. The only people who can now decide are the public themselves in a confirmatory vote. All three principal options should be on the ballot – WTO Brexit, the Prime Minister’s soft Brexit Deal, and Remain, with a first and second preference vote. The result should be binding, triggering a Revoke Article 50 letter, a Withdrawal Agreement Bill passed unamended or a WTO rules departure, depending on the result. A confirmatory vote is the only way we’ll really find out what route forward people really want, and the irreversibility of the next step means it’s only sensible to ask. There is no pain-free option now.
It’s not “extreme” to give people a choice on a ballot paper in a democracy, especially when the Government has exhausted all other Parliamentary routes. Given where Brexit has now got to, a confirmatory referendum may be the only compromise that can gain a consensus from MPs – finally having all the real options on a ballot paper. If Ministers have another way to break the Parliamentary gridlock, beyond hoping that our opponents bail us out, they should be clear what it is. In the meantime they should understand how damaging their failure to find a route is to the Conservative Party, as last week’s election results show so starkly. Every day they procrastinate, the party pays the price.