The issue of Brexit is undeniably the most divisive that I have been involved in during my political career. Sadly, this highly nuanced set of questions is being boiled down into simplistic slogans that the two sides chant at each other with increasing intransigence on both sides.
Throughout the process, I have had 3 simple rules which have helped me to attempt to navigate the many choices that we as MPs have faced. My very first consideration is always what is in the interests of Chesterfield and my country.
Secondly, which decision will be consistent with the approach that I laid out in advance of the 2017 General Election and the manifesto that I stood on.
And thirdly, in practical terms which options will help Parliament to move things forward and allow the UK to deliver on the Brexit referendum in a way that is compatible with minimising any negative economic consequences of leaving the EU.
On the first question of the ‘national interest’, I do think that whatever the economic and social benefits of Remaining, which I unsuccessfully argued for during the Referendum, the cost to confidence in our democratic institutions of not seriously attempting to implement the verdict of the British people could be very serious indeed.
I agree with those who say that having offered the Referendum, it is Parliament’s job to deliver on the promises made, so whilst some have sought to overturn the result from the outset, I voted to trigger Article 50 and stood on a manifesto which said that Labour would respect the result, and that Britain would leave the EU whilst maintaining a customs union, but ending freedom of movement. My commitment to the democratic process means I will support this in spite of ultimately believing that the benefits of Brexit will prove to have been over-promised and will weaken our economy.
Acepting that we are leaving the EU, does not answer the question of what will our future relationship look like- the position the Labour party articulated at the election largely mirrored a speech that I had made in parliament and was featured on my election leaflets in the 2017 General Election.
But it wasn’t just me who recognised that choosing to leave was only the start of complicated considerations about how the decision would be invoked- the Vote Leave campaign said during the Referendum campaign that : ”Taking back control is a careful change, not a sudden step. We will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave.”
So if Vote Leave understood that leaving without confirming our future relationship was imperative before the vote, why is this entirely reasonable and sensible approach now being decried as treacherous and undemocratic by those very same voices who once called for it? And as there is widespread evidence that leaving without a deal would have immediate and serious economic consequences, I reject the idea that because it would also be damaging for the EU, it would be likely to bully them into giving us a better deal. I think it is far more likely that it would be the British negotiating position that would be weakened by what is clearly an act of self harm.
But it is true that the EU need a relationship with us, just as we need one with them. There are no winners from a No Deal Brexit, which is why they have been willing to negotiate a unique deal with us, it is Britain that has rejected continued membership of the customs union, not the EU.
So, I make no apology for being steadfast in my view that Britain must remain in a customs arrangement with the EU and the negotiations have left us to either remain in the customs union or leave and lose the freedom to trade tariff free. Theresa May’s deal attempts to retain many of the benefits on a short term basis but ultimately accepts leaving it in 2 years. This is useless as it leaves many of the key questions unanswered and will simply act as a two year window for manufacturing companies to make plans to make goods elsewhere.
Critics of the customs union point out that we will still have the EU negotiating trade policy that we will have no say in. They are right, but leaving the customs union would mean a hard border in Ireland, which breaks the Good Friday Agreement and threatens the future of the union and would make Britain a very unattractive place to manufacture goods for export.
My strong sense is that control of immigration whilst still being able to trade was key to Leave voters in Chesterfield. And when faced with this balance between sovereignty and economy, I am firmly on the side of staying in the Customs union.
On immigration, though I believe that Britain has predominantly benefited from immigration economically and culturally, it is very hard to see how an outcome that left UK immigration policy unchanged could be seen as delivering on the Referendum, and so democratically, I felt unable to support the amendment that would have seen us remain in the single market, known as Common Market 2.0.
I also rejected the amendment that would have seen Article 50 revoked in the event of No Deal being agreed. At this stage, it would be seen as very bad faith to be supporting an amendment to call Brexit off before we have even exhausted the ways in which it can be delivered. The fact that it was presented by people who had made it clear that they wanted the UK to overturn the verdict of the referendum in the first place, made it all the less attractive.
However, if Parliament cannot resolve a Brexit deal, it may be that there will be no choice but to put the Prime Minister’s vote to the British people. I know that opinions are sharply divided about this, but it may be the only way to end the logjam, and would at least allow a debate about the specific terms on which we leave which was impossible last time, because the vote took place before those terms were known.
If we were to leave with control of immigration restored and a future trading arrangement secured, I don’t see that there would be a need for a 2nd referendum- that is the Brexit my constituents voted for, I believe.
But, I am clear that to leave without any future arrangements organised would not only fly in the face of what Vote Leave promised but leave us very vulnerable and with the Government facing the choice of imposing huge tariffs on EU imports to be paid by consumers of food and goods (ie all of us) or no tariffs, which would mean UK farmers and manufacturers at a huge disadvantage on the global stage. Either way, it is clear that UK firms would be paying exactly the same tariffs as every other non EU nation without a trade deal.
This would be hugely damaging for us and them, but put simply, as we would have this impediment to our relationship with 27 nations and they would have it for one, the impact on us would be much greater.
So, the approach I take will continue to be consistent with that which I have always espoused and on which I was re-elected in 2017. Backing Britain to make a success of Brexit whilst ensuring that we take a careful approach to the biggest economic change we have attempted since the 2nd world war.