It is now almost two years since, by the slimmest of margins, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. I have always respected the outcome of that referendum – that Britain should negotiate the country’s departure from the EU. Last year, I voted for Article 50 to be triggered. My vote was one of 498 that allowed Theresa May and her government to formerly notify the EU of the UK’s intent to leave and to get the Brexit negotiations to get underway.
We already know that a lot of what was promised during that campaign was at best inaccurate and at worst deeply disingenuous. We now know that the promises made about Brexit, like £350m a week extra for the NHS and getting a deal with the exact same benefits, won’t be kept. And if we leave we will have to pay a £40bn divorce bill in return for a much worse relationship.
It has been obvious for some time that the negotiations are not going well. Theresa May’s plans for a customs “partnership” were strongly opposed by business groups, EU negotiators and her own cabinet ministers. They are now dead in the water.
The issue of the customs union barely caused a ripple in the ferocious 2016 referendum campaign, something not lost on Antoinette Sandbach. The Conservative MP told Parliament last month: “I have a confession to make: when I voted in the 2016 referendum, I did not spend a great deal of time thinking about the customs union, rules of origin or other such matters. In that regard, I suspect that I am not alone in the House or in the country. I do not believe that many people gave a lot of thought to our place in the customs union, because very few leave campaigners mentioned leaving it.”
Since the referendum, our collective understanding of the significance of the customs union has grown steadily. Meanwhile, the government has struggled to come up with a meaningful post-Brexit replacement and the myriad of problems – particularly withdrawal from longstanding border arrangements with Northern Ireland – have become more obvious.
How is the government going to secure access to the single market without accepting freedom of movement? As a former trade minister, I know that many of the great new trade deals ministers are wanting to negotiate will involve significant immigration to the UK – a truth that ministers have been reluctant to mention. What is becoming clearer is that we face being bullied into trade deals that could involve reducing employees’ rights, environmental safeguards and health and safety standards.
The outcome of the negotiations between the government and the European Union will impact the lives of every single one of us in the UK and Gibraltar for many decades to come. That is why a public vote on the outcome is the only way for us to collectively exercise due diligence on the final Brexit deal.
A People’s Vote would give the British people the chance to take back control of Brexit from a small group of Leave ideologues and determine together our country’s economic, social and cultural futures. On an issue as significant as this, I believe the people of our country should have the final decision on whether or not the deal the government negotiates is good enough.
Gareth Thomas is MP for Harrow West.