The last few days and weeks have been terrible for our country. Everyone I meet is full of uncertainty about what is going to happen.
One thing is, however, crystal clear. The Government’s Brexit deal has been overwhelmingly rejected by the House of Commons. It was the largest defeat for a Government in the history of British democracy.
I voted against the deal because it completely fails to give us clarity about our future relationship with our biggest, nearest and most important partners – the rest of the EU.
Like many people, I was looking for a clear direction, so we know where we’re heading. Why? Because businesses and the people who work in them need certainty about how trade will operate in future, what access there will be to EU markets for our services industries (which make up 80% of our economy), what workers’ rights and environmental protections there will be and how we continue to work together to ensure our mutual security in an increasingly uncertain world. Instead all we have is uncertainty.
Despite the rejection of her deal, the Prime Minister shows little sign of changing her approach. It’s all very well saying that her door is open but it’s not much use if her mind is closed. The single most important thing she can and must now do is to take a no deal Brexit off the table. The evidence is very clear. It would be disastrous. Our current trading and single market agreement with the EU is better than anything else we have with other countries, and throwing that aside as we leave the EU would be reckless and highly damaging to the economy and jobs.
We now know what Parliament is against but we have yet to establish what Parliament might support. The Brexit Select Committee, which I chair, has called for MPs to vote on a series of options for what might happen next. These are: voting again on the Prime Minister’s deal (which unless something changes seems futile); leaving with no deal (which in my view and that of many businesses would be disastrous); renegotiating the deal to change the Irish backstop, move to a trade deal like Canada or for the UK to join the European Economic Area (like Norway) and stay in a customs union (which I favour); and finally whether there should be a second referendum.
I think it would help if we could test these options to see which one(s) might command a majority in Parliament and I have put forward a proposal to do just that.
Now is the time for all of us to be honest with each other about the choices and the trade-offs that we have to make as a nation on this very important decision which will have profound consequences for our future. We need to find a way of bringing together a divided country by acknowledging that not everyone will be happy with a final outcome and all of us are going to have to compromise.
If the Government does not do this then Parliament must take on the responsibility to try and find a way forward. And if we remain deadlocked then, unless there is general election, it’s hard to see how else we could reach a final decision other than by asking the British people to make the final decision.
I hope this is helpful.
Rt Hon Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central