The last two weeks have taught me much about the difference between an MP, a Minister and a national politician. The changes, which I have helped to bring in the last eight years – signing the law to introduce a 5p tax on plastic bags, pushing superfast fibre out in Cumbria, or trying to install drug scanners in prisons – have been generally operational and concerned with improving public services. But this issue is far more sudden, intense and urgent – not a question of management, but a question of values, identity, and nationhood.
This debate is happening on the cliff-edge – if parliament repeatedly refuses the deal we will crash out of the European Union, with no economic or political arrangements in place, in just four months’ time. This is not something that can be ‘fudged’. And it will not ‘somehow be alright.’ The EU is driven by regulations and laws – often frustratingly so – so if there is no-deal, our trucks will get stuck on the continental side of the border, the automobile parts that currently cross the channel four times in the making of a car will be held up, there will be problems for law, finance, security, and shortages of basic goods. And in this mess and chaos we will harm our international reputation for stability, our currency and economy. And that is before we start trying to negotiate new trading arrangements from a position of weakness.
Some claim nevertheless to be okay with all of this. I just received a note saying: “I voted leave fully expecting a loss of 9% GDP over ten years.” Really? Our economy shrunk by 5.2 per cent in the recession – which was by far the worst year for the economy since the Second World War. The loss he is anticipating through a no-deal Brexit is almost twice that – adding more than 200 Billion pounds to our national debt – enough to pay for our entire national policing twenty times over. If he is right then instead of emerging from a decade of austerity we would probably be forced into another decade of cuts. And yet some Remainers too claim to want this scenario because they feel the misery would force people to admit their error and rejoin the EU.
Last night someone wrote to tell me that I was a ‘belittling s–t’ who should be ‘first against the wall’ because I opposed a second referendum. I opposed it because I believe it will lead to more of such violent language and politics. Over the last week I have become unable to distinguish whether the people who are threatening me – as an enemy of the people, the constitution and democracy – are extreme Remainers or extreme Brexiteers. Each side has adopted an identical vocabulary, each claims a monopoly of sense and righteousness. Trying to hold a second referendum will not solve these divisions, it will exacerbate them.
Every single member of parliament and every party, and the government itself, promised to uphold the referendum – whatever the result. Anyone holding a second referendum, aware of how unpredictable referenda are, is deliberately choosing to gamble on either no-Brexit or no-deal – and either outcome would feel significantly worse than the PM’s deal for the losing side – who would be furious in defeat.
If Remain narrowly won (and anyone who thinks they can be confident of a big victory is truly deluded) it would solve nothing. The campaign for a third referendum to leave again would begin the next day. In that scenario, Britain would limp back into Europe like someone returning to the family home half way through the divorce proceedings, with the Europeans and international investors pityingly aware that there was already a mounting campaign to take us out of the EU once more, with North against South, populist against pro-Europeans, and an illiberal splash of BNP mark 2 taking the argument into the streets under the banner of betrayal.
Which is why we now need to end this war between Brexit and Remain and find some common ground. We must acknowledge the referendum happened and that people voted by a margin of over a million for Brexit. We should respect that democratic result by leaving EU political institutions (and any talk of ever closer union or a European army), and by taking back control over immigration. But we must also reach out to and address the concerns of the more than 16 million who voted Remain. We should do that through a deal which protects our economy, and which keeps very close links to Europe, without being in the EU. A winner-takes-all approach might work in an election, but it cannot in a long-term political settlement that has to endure through successive governments.
The British have never solved our moments of violent division – the Reformation stand-offs between Evangelicals and Catholics, or the Civil War itself – by trying to provide the utopia preached by one fringe or the other. At the time, the compromises of the Anglican church, or a constitutional monarchy, seemed to the extremists as though they were the worst of all worlds. But – perhaps in part because everyone was equally unhappy – they eventually proved the source of our stability – not the worst, but the best of all worlds.
Which is why I believe that the only realistic option at this stage is to reject both a second referendum and a no-plan, no-deal Brexit, and instead look at an achievable deal to heal the country. And that deal will look an awful lot like the deal we currently have on the table.