On June 23rd 2016, the British people took the historic and momentous decision to leave the European Union. Here in the North East, over 58% of those who voted chose to Leave. That decision wasn’t taken in a vacuum: it came after the 2014 European elections were won by a Leave-supporting party, and the 2015 General Election was won by a party promising a referendum on EU membership. During the campaign, Remain outspent Leave by a 3:2 ratio. On top of all that, the government spent over £9 million on a propaganda campaign promoting a Remain vote. It had an impact: those who read it were more likely to vote Remain. At the General Election in 2017, over 84% voted for parties pledging to implement the referendum result.
The priorities were, to me, pretty clear during the referendum campaign: regain full control of our ability to negotiate trade deals with other countries, end EU law and EU courts overruling our own, stop sending the EU vast sums of money, regain control over EU immigration, and regain our sovereignty. The mandate from the referendum was, in my view, pretty clear: the government should seek to negotiate a deal with the European Union for the closest possible neighbourly arrangement which respected the freedoms we’d voted to regain.
The Conservative-led government was hopeless from the start in negotiations. It allowed itself to be bullied by the European Union rather than standing up for itself, paralysed by fear. The European Union is negotiating fiercely; the United Kingdom is not.
The Labour Party, as Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, has one main job: to point out to the government when it’s being stupid. When the government agreed a £35+ billion ‘divorce bill’, despite no legal obligation, gaining nothing concrete in return, Labour didn’t demand we go back to the negotiating table. In the European Parliament, Labour even voted with the EU’s side of negotiations against the UK’s.
We’re stuck with an incompetent Government and an incompetent Opposition. A further General Election would cause chaos, but resolve nothing. Conservatives (beset by infighting over Brexit) are opposed by Labour (beset by infighting over anti-Semitism and Brexit). Against this backdrop came Theresa May’s Chequers fudge. Even arch-Remainer Nick Clegg summed that up as ‘whatever Brexit means, it cannot be this’. The government’s opening salvo in negotiations concedes far more than you’d expect to concede in a final deal. The European Union, sensing weakness on the UK’s part, even poured scorn on that offer.
When challenged about Remain politicians attempting to undermine Brexit, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier insisted that the EU’s position hasn’t changed throughout negotiations. What a remarkable admission: in over 2 years, they’ve made no single meaningful concession. Would that have been possible without UK remain politicians egging the EU on at every stage, providing support and encouragement for the EU’s stance against the UK’s?
Now, we have a new problem: the so-called ‘People’s Vote’ campaign – the bizarre notion that an issue decided by a European Election, a referendum, and two General Elections, requires another referendum to see whether we want to overturn our original decision. Even if they succeeded, they’d lead to unrest, national disunity, and demands to make it ‘best of three’ to settle a 1-1 tie.
The EU wants us to Remain; such campaigns encourage them only to concede nothing in negotiation. The very people who dislike referendum results now, ironically, demand another referendum to re-ask the same question.
Mainstream politicians of all sides have made a dog’s breakfast of Brexit, lacking reasoned opposition since UKIP went over to the dark side, to borrow a Star Wars metaphor.Right at the start of the process, Theresa May said ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. We can’t have a referendum asking the same Leave/Remain question that’s been repeatedly answered ad nauseam. Apart from anything else, the Electoral Commission now expects 6 months’ notice to be given of a referendum. With Parliament entering its summer recess, a referendum couldn’t realistically be called until a couple of weeks before Brexit anyway. This mess is, broadly speaking, the result of Remainers negotiating Brexit. But we are where we are.
Perhaps there’s one solution: why not ask a new question of the British people, putting whatever awful deal the government negotiates to the test? Brexit is a settled question democratically; the type of Brexit is not. ‘Do you accept the government’s proposed Brexit deal, or would you prefer to leave the European Union without a deal?’ – would at least ask the public something new. As a bonus, it’d finally give the EU a reason to negotiate in good faith. They wouldn’t make concessions unless they think there’s a genuine chance of a no-deal scenario.