“Dear Anna, Put Boris and his gang in the tower. Conned me into voting Leave. If there was another referendum I would vote to Remain.” That was the first message that greeted me this week, and though I will resist the temptation to call for the Prime Minister to be locked in the Tower, the sentiment is one that I hear more and more.
Many of my constituents voted to leave the EU and they did so in good faith. I have never, and will never, criticise them for that. They voted Leave for so many reasons – because they were sick of industrial and economic decline, rising youth unemployment, low pay, poor transport and ailing public services. They did so to give David Cameron a bloody nose. They were promised an end to our woes. They were told it was the EU that was holding us back, not a lack of interest or investment from Westminster. They were promised the earth – a “Global Britain” that would lift our economy, and £350m a week for the NHS. It is clear now that none of this ever had any basis in truth.
Even the former Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has now acknowledged that there is no possible Brexit that will not make the country poorer. Even the Brexit deal he helped negotiate and voted for with Theresa May. And all the government evidence shows that it is the North East, and the people I represent, who will be hit hardest and pay the price yet again.
If you think things are so bad, and likely to get worse, surely we need a general election? That is the argument the Conservatives want us to accept. And I agree that an election must come, and it must happen soon – but not until Brexit is resolved. The reason Boris Johnson wants an election now is that it gets him off the hook of having to deliver against the false promises he made in 2016, and it gives him the best chance of bouncing an unhappy country into a no deal Brexit. It simply makes no sense for anyone but the Prime Minister to argue for this. He wants a way out of the crisis that he has made for himself – found guilty of unlawful behaviour, accused of lying to the Queen and lost his first seven parliamentary votes. Why would we now let him loose to start flogging more unicorns to a country that needs certainty, not fantasy?
It is clear that Brexit must be resolved first. It is the single biggest issue facing the country, and our collective failure to resolve the deadlock has led to a dangerous spike in anger on both sides. We cannot mend our body politic, nor our society, until this is sorted. The only way to escape this paralysis is to go back to the people – not on the wider issues, but on the one issue that has plunged us into this crisis. Changing some of the MPs working for a solution will not change the problem with the question itself. And that is what must be dealt with. If we were to have a general election first, the promises made about the future of our country – what money we have to spend on the NHS, what we can put into public services, how many new police officers we can pay for – risk being meaningless without knowing the outcome of Brexit, and what that means for our economy.
Of course the Labour Party wants rid of this rotten and failing government. We want to say goodbye to the Chancellor who closed Redcar steelworks and cost 3,000 jobs. We want to oust the Brexit Secretary who has only just discovered that building a car in Sunderland relies on parts crossing the channel several times in just-in-time supply chains. Every day this Tory government brings more misery – rising child poverty rates, the decline of vital local services like Sure Starts, cuts to schools and more pressure on teachers. But none of these issues – the very things that brought Labour MPs into parliament – will get a hearing in an election that comes before a second referendum.
An election where the public feel desperate to put an end to the Brexit paralysis, and where anything can be promised, will certainly backfire for Labour – but more crucially for the country too. We could end up with another five years of toxicity. Things are never so bad that they couldn’t be worse, and under this Prime Minister I think it is a safe bet to assume there’s worse to come.
The only way to ‘Get Brexit Done’ is to ask the people to have a final say. Following on from that instruction in 2016, we now have the detail and the options – and the consequences are now clear. Let’s ask the people to sign off and agree a deal, or to say they want to stay. A People’s Vote is what is needed to fix this divided country.