This article was originally published in the Independent on the 12th February 2018.
I voted to invoke Article 50 last year. I have never felt so uncomfortable going through the voting lobby in the House of Commons, but I did so because I believed Parliament, having determined to hold a referendum and approved the rules under which it was fought, had a duty to exhaust the process and try to deliver Brexit in the form that it was promised to the British people. This was always conditional on Brexit not being substantially or materially different to what the official Leave campaign promised, as I made clear in the House of Commons in 2016.
As we start 2017 and are now halfway through the negotiations, it is clear Brexit cannot be delivered in the form it was sold to the British people. This is not because people were lied to or brainwashed into voting a particular way by right-wing politicians and tabloids. Nor is it because of government incompetence, though undoubtedly incompetence reigns. But the 2016 referendum revolved around hypotheticals – neither side could say with certainty what would happen if the country voted Leave. Two years on, we now know for certain enough about what will happen, which no one could have predicted with certainty before.
There is no doubt that the people have a choice where Brexit is concerned, whatever ministers may claim. I have been told by senior members of EU institutions and senior members of other member state governments that, if necessary, an extension to the Article 50 process would be granted to allow “democratic engagement” (as Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell put it yesterday) to take place to determine whether to press on with Brexit or to remain in the EU and work within for reform.
The key Vote Leave pledge was, of course, the claim that if we voted to leave the EU, £350m extra per week would be directed to the NHS. Whatever the precise words on the side of Boris Johnson’s big red bus, the clear intended message was that if you voted to leave, billions of pounds more would go into the NHS. As many Labour MPs will tell you, this was of primary importance for many Labour voters. But the Government voted against my amendment to the Article 50 Act to ensure this NHS pledge was delivered. It will not materialise. That is because, as the IFS said last month, “Brexit has reduced rather than increased the funds available for the NHS and other public services”.
We were told before and after the referendum that we would be granted the exact same economic benefits of our current EU membership, which we enjoy through the EU’s single market and the customs union, if we leave, because of our EU partners’ keenness to sell us cars, food and more besides. Again, this is not going to happen. As Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, made clear at the start of negotiations, it is impossible given the Prime Minister has determined we must leave both entities.
We were also told by Vote Leave “we would immediately be able to start negotiating new trade deals with emerging economies and the world’s biggest economies” after the 2016 poll. Liam Fox’s Department for International Trade has already conceded this will not happen and there is little research to suggest these promised new deals will come close to matching the trading benefits we enjoy as a result of EU membership. Any new deals will also take years to finalise.
Finally, there is no denying that immigration was a massive part of the jigsaw in that 2016 vote. Many thought that a drastic reduction in immigration would ease housing and pressures on public services. There has already been a large fall in the numbers coming here from the EU, though not from the rest of the world. However, there has been no commensurate fall in housing pressures across the country because our housing crisis was created domestically, and with continued nursing shortages in the NHS – including in my part of south London – many now question whether we want to be encouraging EU citizens to leave in such numbers.
The main reason advanced for not holding another referendum is that it would “thwart the will of the people”. I fail to see how this can be the case if the people are the ones who get the final say – it is not as if there will be somebody standing behind every voter in the polling booth forcing them to vote whichever way.
If you voted to leave in 2016 and that is still your view, you can simply vote the same way again, but just as floating voters change their minds at every general election, voters may have a different view on this occasion. As the leading Brexiteer, now the Brexit Secretary, David Davis famously said: “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.” Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove before and after the 2016 referendum have all accepted another referendum may be needed and could be held on our EU membership.
The other reason people say we shouldn’t have another referendum is because it would be “divisive”. Here I do have concerns – but we are a country that is already divided on this issue. Ploughing on with Brexit in the way the Tory Government is doing at present – with the huge inevitable fallout to come – will exacerbate those divisions. It has already led to increasing demands for a new Scottish independence referendum and the suggestions of special post-Brexit economic arrangements for Northern Ireland – as the Government scrambles to find a solution to the Irish border issue – is also creating a new set of problems. It has set different parts of the UK against each other, as the other nations of the UK demand the same benefits the Government is considering for Northern Ireland.
The truth is the only the way to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement is for the whole of the UK to stay in the EU’s single market and customs union. Not only did the British people not vote to be poorer in 2016, they certainly did not want to jeopardise the settlement in Northern Ireland that brought peace after decades of bloodshed.
Some words of caution for those on my side of this argument. It is misleading to suggest that anyone can “#StopBrexit”. The only way Brexit will not happen is if a majority of people come to that view, and a majority of MPs in Parliament determine the people should get the final say later this year.
There is no majority in the House of Commons for the UK to leave the customs union and the single market. A majority of MPs are not currently publicly demanding that there be a referendum on the final deal, with many sitting in the “soft Brexit” space instead – but this is changing, with many privately now coming round to that view.
I want us to remain in the EU to reform the way in which our economy works, to ensure Britain can help shape the big global forces buffeting people around and secure the best future for future generations. If we successfully secure a referendum on the final deal, we cannot present remaining in the EU as a way of continuing with the status quo. We need change but not the kind of change Brexit will bring.