Over the last couple of months, as ever, I’ve received many thousands of emails on this subject representing every possible shade of opinion and drawing every conceivable extrapolation from election results, valedictory statements, whispers emerging from EU corridors and now, the pronouncements of the mushrooming list of contenders to replace the Prime Minister.
It won’t be news to anyone that the narrowness of the parliamentary arithmetic has left the UK deeply troubled. While that’s been terrific for those whose job it is to analyse the mysteries of Westminster, it’s hugely frustrating for those who want to see the Brexit process move towards a conclusion. That conclusion is a prerequisite for the country to move on and address the many pressing issues that have been in eclipse over the last two years.
As we grapple with Brexit, it’s worth remembering that we’re not alone. Many of the forces we’re seeing shape our own country’s political discourse are equally present (though, of course, differently manifested) across Europe and the Western world. We’ve seen a year of civil unrest in France, the increasing representation of far-right extremists in Germany and Scandinavia and the hardening of attitudes on either side of the political divide in the US. And a glance at my postbag shows me that the sense of division in the UK has only hardened (along with attitudes on both sides) since the June 2016 referendum. Public mistrust of institutions has grown – but this has been accompanied by increasing cynicism about the functioning of democracy itself. It’s within the vacuum between a Government and the people who elected it that extremism and civil unrest are incubated.
So implicit in Brexit is a larger question about how we can come out of this process with faith in the working of democracy enhanced.
Over the last eighteen months or so, I’ve acted on the basis that the referendum result must be honoured and that the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration (which will form the basis of the future negotiated partnership) should reflect the realities both of the parliamentary arithmetic and of the breadth of opinion in the country. While any referendum is binary, there was no reason why the implementation of its results should have amounted to a zero-sum game – and, as I’ve said before, I thought the Prime Minister’s version (despite inevitable imperfections) a genuine and valid attempt to reconcile the vast spread of opinion in the country and achieve the principal aim of leaving the EU by March 29th.
But now that the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement is fodder for future historians rather than any kind of a workable political reality, it’s clear that the next five months present rather different choices.
Though the sight of politicians jockeying for power is unedifying for many, the leadership contest does present an opportunity to bring this phase of stasis to an end. Amidst the competing promise and the hectares of newsprint we’ll see as the new Prime Minister is chosen, it’s important to remember that we will be leaving the European Union by default when the extension to October 31st expires.
As an MP, I’m in the hugely privileged position of hearing the innermost thoughts of thousands of constituents on Brexit and to see the passion and knowledge which shapes them. I don’t say this lightly. I understand the fears of those who believe the referendum was an unedifying process and obscured facts rather than bringing them to light – just as I sympathise with those who have seen delays to our departure from the EU as attempts to dilute or disregard the referendum result.
So how do we ensure we square the circle of Brexit while protecting our democratic institutions against populist assaults from extremists on both sides of the political divide? If we fail to find an answer to that question, the consequences will be severe – not just for the UK, but for our allies and partners, too.
As the runners and riders in the race to Downing Street limber up, I’ll be looking to support a candidate who will secure our departure from the European Union on the 31st October. This is vital if we’re to restore the faith of all participants in the referendum that democracy has not been side-lined -or dismissed as an inconvenient but manageable disruption to the status quo.
But, for me, it’s also vital that the successful candidate has a record of implementing One Nation, socially liberal Conservative policies; who has sufficient reach to counteract the unworkable, insidious promises of populists and who can prevent the election of a quasi-Marxist administration which would destroy our historic alliances and dynamite the foundations of our economy. They will need to offer answers to the unfairness of the current school funding system, the ecological crisis facing our planet and those who are desperate for certainty in a febrile political climate so they can build businesses and plan ahead.
Uncertainty, indecision and delay all create an environment in which the (spurious) easy answers offered by extremism can flourish. So it’s time to take the October 31st deadline seriously and attempt to fashion a new Withdrawal Agreement – but with No-Deal as the default if that process fails.
With that pragmatism – and the certainty it provides - we can restore focus to the fundamental issues that matter to all of us. The creation of a more just, compassionate and meritocratic society, ensuring that the relationship between economic success and social justice doesn’t fall disastrously out of kilter and that the social fractures made manifest in the referendum can begin to set and heal. I’m not underestimating the scale of the challenge that lies ahead, but it’s time to make a start.