21 February

Brexit breaking point

Brexit breaking point

Nigel Farage notoriously stood in front of a poster that purported to show a seemingly endless queue of foreign nationals waiting to enter the United Kingdom. The emotive words emblazoned across the top were “breaking point.”

Almost three years after the EU referendum result, it is hard not to feel that we are indeed at a breaking point. Not the kind that Mr Farage envisaged – indeed, net migration from the EU has dropped to a five-year low – but the breaking point of ordinary, rational, decent citizens and politicians who are at the end of their collective tether with the chaos of Brexit.

Last month, in an initiative backed by the Labour human rights lawyer Baroness Kennedy and the former Tory chairman Lord Saatchi, I delivered a letter to Theresa May imploring her to re-start the promising negotiations about enhancing the UK’s role in the EU that her predecessor David Cameron had begun with Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council.

Principled MPs in the House of Commons have this week boldly and courageously chosen to leave both the Conservative and Labour parties to establish The Independent Group because they, too, feel that this madness cannot go on.

The stirrings of discontent and the realignment that we are now witnessing in our politics is the inevitable consequence of 62 per cent of the electorate feeling politically homeless.   The decision of Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston to join the Labour founders of the Independent Group – Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Gavin Shuker and, latterly, Joan Ryan – begins a process that holds out the hope of giving a real voice to a the majority of voters in England who have so far been denied one.

I admire these MPs – especially the women

Let me say immediately that I admire these MPs – especially the women. These are the people who are willing to put their heads above the parapet, to defy the onslaught of abuse I know too well – it’s always disproportionately directed at the women – and are brave enough to look beyond the vote taken nearly three years ago and put the best interests of the whole country – both Leavers and Remainers – first.

Of course, this is about so much more than just Brexit. These MPs, like so many of us, have been appalled by what has happened to our politics. The anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, the xenophobia and Islamophobia of the Conservative Party, and a bullying, thuggish new tone to political discourse have all combined to alienate vast swaths of the electorate.

Ordinary people are now sick and tired of being told how they must reconcile themselves to still more deprivations in the name of Brexit – deprivations that were, of course, never spelt out during the Referendum campaign. They see all too clearly how too many MPs are now serving the best interests of their party machines rather than those of their constituents, especially in the north of England. One exasperated worker in the car manufacturing industry – facing redundancy – was finally allowed to say on a mainstream news programme this week that the Government’s handling of Brexit amounted to “idiocy of epic proportions.”

There was an elephant in the Commons chamber

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn scolded Theresa May in Prime Minister’s Questions  for paying no heed to the “economic slowdown,” but Labour voters can see that Mr Corbyn, in effectively backing Mrs May on Brexit, is aiding and abetting her in precipitating that slowdown, and, yes, failing, in any real respect, to fulfil his job description as Leader of the Official Opposition. It was a curious phenomenon that neither Mr May nor Mr Corbyn mentioned the group of parliamentary defectors, because neither could exploit party political advantage out of doing so. What a great elephant it was sitting in the chamber that they both somehow managed to ignore. Curiouser still was the fact that, almost uniquely, Mrs May and Mr Corbyn had more in common with each other that day than their colleagues sitting behind them.

It must be plain to Tory voters that theirs is no longer a “party of business.” How poignant to think that  Mrs Thatcher, as its leader, once promised international investors, such as the Japanese, that if they invested in the UK they could be confident of being able to use it as the gateway to the EU marketplace courtesy of the Customs Union.  Instead, people with money in the UK – whether domestic businesses or from overseas – are being subjected to the spectacle of Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary who sees himself as a potential leader, even if a large part of his parliamentary party do not, pursuing a policy that damages business. He tells them that if they don’t like it, his view is “f—” business.

Traditional Conservatives now have good reason to wonder, as have traditional Labour supporters, what their party stands for. It is obvious to them that Brexit has caused both of their parties to take leave of their traditional and historic purposes and principles, if not also their senses.

A beacon of hope at a very dark time

I would say that there was never such a huge amount of difference between “One Nation” Tories and traditional Labour supporters – that is why, for instance, the great Labour city of Liverpool is proud to number Lord Heseltine as one of its freemen. It was difficult not to be moved, too, by the obvious warmth with which the Labour MPs who began the Independent Group greeted their new Tory recruits in the Commons. What they clearly share is, above all things, a love of country and a belief in putting the best interests of our people first.  Some expected them to be loud in this first PMQs, but I thought their dignified silence spoke eloquent volumes. They are sitting where they are not to show off – and forward their own ambitions – but because they have no choice and are willing to put their jobs on the line for the sake of their constituents.

My hope for this new group – a beacon of hope at a very dark time in the life of our nation – is that they can continue to put aside party politics and egos and work together in the national interest. The Sky data poll this week showed the Independent Group has got off to a flying start – with a 10 per cent share of the vote – but it is hard not to see the crying need for it to get together quickly with the Lib Dems (on nine per cent) and other like-minded groups to overtake the Labour Party – currently on 26 per cent to the Tories’ 32.

Our old politics is broken

I do not, by the way, under-estimate for one moment the sterling opposition that the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cyru have put up against the insanity of Brexit in the absence of any from Mr Cobyn. It would make sense for them all to join what I would see as a coalition for common sense. We, the people of the United Kingdom, expect and require a real and vigorous opposition on this the single most important and defining issue of our times.

Our old politics is broken. It is no longer good enough for your local MP to say that he or she is ambivalent about Brexit – to see these indiviudals pursuing a policy of self-serving ambiguity – now that March 29, the day we are due to exit the EU, is looming ever larger.

With real determination and courage, there is still no reason why, even at this late hour, each of our political leaders cannot save their parties and perhaps themselves. The only way they can do that is, of course, for them to face down the well-organised and well-funded special interest groups within their parties.  Entryism is polluting the blood of both the Labour and Tory parties. Each runs the risk of seeing their own political cultures and values up-ended by what can only be called fifth columnists who want to engineer silent revolutions from within respective party machines.

Mrs May must pause the Brexit stopwatch

Both Mrs May and Mr Corbyn need to recognise that the obvious first response to the ructions in their parties is to allow their MPs a free vote on Brexit. The Prime Minister has, sadly, once again side-stepped a question about when the meaningful vote would take place. With no emerging majority in the House of Commons, a public vote seems highly desirable, but, short of that, our nation’s political leaders must let Parliament do what Parliament does best – which is to put the interests of our country first.

I hope that in time Mrs May and indeed Mr Corbyn will consider coolly and calmly all the options on the table with regard to Brexit, including of course the proposals I put forward in my Lead Not Leave initiative. For now, with so little time and the dramatic course of events we are seeing playing out at Westminster, the stopwatch counting down the minutes to Brexit has to at least be paused. The Prime Minister has to recognise she cannot lead the United Kingdom out of Europe when it is so divided and she is herself so disorganised.

As for the new Independent Group, every member of it is committed to saving the country from a catastrophic hard Brexit. They do not want to see Mrs May damage the quality of the lives of our people – and especially our young and their job prospects, not to mention their hopes and dreams. A lot of our basic freedoms, too, are at stake. That commitment is for me good enough for now – and, it is clear, a great many others. We should all wish them well.

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