Owen Smith MP: Brexit and where to go from here
The only notable thing about the latest Prime Minister’s non-Statement on Tuesday was the strange omission of the words that had been briefed to the media overnight as its central message to MPs: ‘hold your nerve.’
Perhaps she just forgot to say it, though the words were there in the written handout that accompanied the statement. I suspect, however, it simply occurred to the PM, perhaps even as she stood at the Despatch Box, that her appeal might backfire spectacularly, as the success of her Brexit plan now depends entirely on a majority of MPs doing precisely the opposite, and losing our nerve when we get to the crunch, voting through her Deal for fear of the No Deal scenario she says is the alternative.
Of course, you don’t need to be eavesdropping on Olly Robbins in a Brussels bar to know her threat of no deal is as empty as any Brexiteer’s promise. There is no chance that this Prime Minister, or any Prime Minister with a grain of decency or a sense of duty, would inflict on our country the catastrophic consequences of a No Deal exit from the EU.
Not least because, as this Prime Minister has so ably demonstrated over the last two years, the Tory determination to hold on to power is as strong as ever. And the fallout from a No Deal Brexit, the cost and fury of lost jobs and broken lives, would rain down on Mrs May’s party, poisoning their chances of governing Britain for generations to come.
That warning has been sounded loud and clear by Sir Oliver Letwin and other sentient Tories on the Government backbenches, and even if Mrs May professes not to hear them when she repeats her threat to crash us out, we in Labour should listen and take note – and hold our nerve accordingly.
We should approach the next few weeks of make-work and time-wasting sure in the knowledge that the crunch is coming, but not for a while, almost certainly not until the very last moment, in the final days of March. But certain too that the choice we will then face is not that described by the Prime Minister, as between her deal and a cliff edge, but rather that revealed by her loose-lipped chief negotiator, Mr Robbins, as between her deal and a ‘bridge’ extending Article 50 to the end of the Summer, or even the end of the year.
So we should continue to table amendments today and make speeches calling for the Prime Minister to take No Deal off the table. But with confidence that today’s debate will pass off without anything new of note, as the Prime Minister winds down the clock and refuses to rule our No Deal until the final hour is upon us. When she’ll do just that, blaming parliament for her choice.
There is, however, one thing the Prime Minister keeps repeating that we should listen to in Labour, and take her at her word: extending Article 50 will not solve our problem or deliver us from the uncertainty that is hitting our economy and costing us jobs already. She’s right about that.
Kicking the can down the road will do nothing to solve the core Brexit conundrum of how ERG demands a bonfire Brexit that burns every bridge to our continent can be squared with the reality the of UK’s integration into global trade via the portal of the EU. Nor will it bring Lexiteer claims that the EU prohibits state ownership, or their dreams of socialism in one state, any closer to credibility.
In fact, if MPs obey the Prime Minister’s instruction and continue to hold their nerve and refuse to support her dog’s breakfast of a deal, there may be no amount of time that might break the Parliamentary impasse and allow our country to break free of Brexit.
The truth is that the only thing that could now deliver us from Brexit paralysis is the people. If Parliament is unable or unwilling either to agree on a route through Brexit, or to revoke it, then we should use our energy to prepare the means for the people to take back control and issue further instructions to take us forward.
My Labour colleagues, Peter Kyle MP and Phil Wilson MP, have prepared a path for the people to do just that. They propose that MPs, including those like me who think Brexit is a historic mistake, vote through Mrs May’s deal on the proviso that the people are then given their say on it, in a confirmatory public vote.
That would require compromise on all sides. Remainers would have to hold their nose and vote for the Brexit deal. Leavers would have to hold their nerve and hope that the people still want it. The risk for Remainers would be clear, because under this plan Parliament’s hands would be bound if the public vote were passed, and Brexit would unfold as instructed. But the opportunity is equally clear, that we might campaign for Remain this time with the Leave-side lies fully exposed, and unlike in 2016, make a positive and patriotic case for the UK leading again at the heart of our continent.
One other thing Mrs May is fond of saying, and which rings true to me, is that there is a mood for compromise in The Commons. Not yet, and perhaps not ever, on the wisdom of Brexit per se, but on the need to break the deadlock at least. The Kyle-Wilson compromise would do just that, and if the Prime Minister really believes her Deal both honours the will of the people and is the best deal to be had, she should show the courage of her convictions, and put it to the people.
Owen Smith MP - 14th February 2019
Owen Smith is the MP for Pontypridd, having first been elected in 2010. He contested the Labour Party leadership in 2016 and is a vocal campaigner on Brexit.