On Wednesday, I once again found myself on the opposite side of most of my friends and colleagues when it came to Labour’s Brexit policy. There is nothing harder for any MP to do than defy their party’s whip. It is not a badge of honour; it is not a statement of bravery; it is not to be revelled in or be talked about with pride. It is a gut-wrenching misery that has consequences. I am as much a Member of Parliament for the Labour and Co-operative parties as I am for the City of Stoke-on-Trent.
But, on Wednesday, I again found myself split between what I was asked to do by my party and what I thought was right to do by my constituents. I know my decision to abstain is being briefed out by colleagues as some kind of endorsement of ‘no deal’. Nothing could be further from the truth: I have repeatedly opposed no deal. I have voted against it three times in parliament, and each time parliament has overwhelmingly said no to no deal.
But there is an inescapable fact that the Labour Party (and all others who oppose no deal) needs to wake up to: simply saying that we oppose no deal is not now, and never has been, sufficient to prevent no deal. The facts are simple. While our exit date is fixed in European and British law, a no deal Brexit remains our legal default. A further delay in our leaving date does not rule out no deal. It just moves the prospect of a no deal Brexit a little bit further into the future.
Every MP knows that there are only two guaranteed ways of preventing a no deal Brexit. Parliament either votes for a deal, and we all move on to stage two of the Brexit process, or the whole process is ended by revoking our notice to leave under Article 50. To date, the Labour Party has been opposed to both of these measures. Labour MPs have been whipped to vote against the only deal on the table and abstain on revocation.
The Business of the House motion on Wednesday also made no advancement of either of those options. It was about finding time for a bill that would not have actually changed the law regarding the date of exit but, instead, mandated the next Prime Minister to make a statement in the House of Commons and then table a motion. A motion that would have allowed parliament to declare our opposition to a no deal Brexit without actually stopping a no deal Brexit.
Revoking Article 50 or agreeing a deal are still the only guaranteed ways of preventing the UK from leaving the EU without a deal. My opposition to a second referendum is well-known. But even so, a second referendum is not a get-out clause for this choice. A ballot paper of deal or Remain leads the Labour Party to the same inevitable place. Do we campaign for Remain, and therefore support revocation, or do we support a deal?
Since the triggering of Article 50, all roads were always going to converge on this simple choice if you oppose crashing out with nothing. I’ve made my personal position clear: I want to vote for a deal and will do the next time we have that opportunity. We all now face the same hard choice: deal or revoke.
There are no detours, no clever procedures that allow the Labour Party to miss a step, no parliamentary tricks cooked up by Tory backbenchers that allow the Labour Party to be bystanders. And Wednesday’s motion was more about the Labour Party trying to say ‘we tried to stop no deal’ than actually doing one of the two things that can stop no deal.
Pretty much every business in my constituency is now telling me to either vote for a deal or confirm that we are leaving with no deal – because what they need is certainty. More of the same political slight-of-hand doesn’t achieve that. I cannot in good faith look my constituents in the eye and tell them I had tried to stop no deal, when in reality I – and almost every other Labour MP – would have done everything we could to avoid doing one of the two things that could have led to no deal being taken off the table forever. And that is why I abstained on Wednesday.
There are consequences to every action and, earlier this week, opposition parties sought to use grand gestures to replace real politics. They sought to contrive circumstances to make the decision they wanted to make, rather than face hard reality and the truth of the decision we have to make.
I now urge the Labour Party to seize – with both hands and with the full courage of our convictions – a policy stance that is unambiguously clear. Either support the deal, albeit through gritted teeth as the lesser of two evils, or commit the party, wholeheartedly, to revoking Article 50 without a referendum.
If the party chooses revoke, without the window dressing and smokescreen of a second referendum, we can at least be judged on that principled action at the next general election. A stance that would be positioned alongside a radical domestic agenda that seeks to address what led people to voting Leave in the first place. We would make it clear that there is no form of deal, other than full membership of the EU, that the Labour Party could or would support in parliament. We would throw down the gauntlet to Tory MPs opposed to no deal to vote with us.
Or, if we believe that leaving with a deal is possible and preferable, as I do, we must commit to supporting a deal now to prevent leaving with nothing. And again, we can be judged on our actions at the next general election, when our manifesto can include the permanent customs union, dynamic alignment for workers’ rights, continued cooperation on security, law and order and a common regulatory framework for environmental standards and consumer protections.
This manifesto position would see us respect the result but in turn be given the mandate for Labour’s Brexit deal, which I have voted for at every opportunity, but which has been thwarted in the House of Commons every time – by the same Tories who now claim to be our friends against no deal.
The fate of the country now rests squarely on the choices made by the opposition. There are as many consequences to our actions as there will be to our inaction. And our party will struggle, but we are at our best when we are at our boldest. We support the deal and continue building the progressive domestic agenda for the next general election or we wholeheartedly back revoking Article 50. It’s our decision to make but it is a decision that cannot wait any longer.