Three years after the referendum, parliament is as divided as before and the country is more so. My inbox, like that of every MP, is full of people who live just a few streets from each other demanding we either respect or overturn the result of the referendum. We have gone round in circles for three years. If there was ever a moment for political leadership, it is now. It is time to start making some decisions, and if we cannot, to go back to the country and ask them to choose between what are very different paths on offer for Britain.
For three years, most of us have clung to our principled positions on Brexit. The ERG want to cut all ties; the Lib Dems want to overturn the result; Labour is divided into people who believe a soft Brexit does less democratic harm, and those who believe a second referendum can be won and that it will do less economic harm.
It has taken us through cross-party talks that achieved nothing, and indicative votes in which those on both extremes knocked out every compromise option in the centre. We have failed at every opportunity to take the offer of a soft Brexit, and now we are faced with a country that is divided and furious – and a Tory Party that has united to likely push through a hard Brexit or no deal at all.
For so many reasons, not least the real and immediate consequences for the country, we should be forced to look at the facts as they currently are and not what we’d like them to be. That means engaging with the deal in front of us. Not accepting it wholesale, or nodding it through, but scrutinising and debating something real – the legislation that will enact our exit from the EU, which we pledged to uphold in 2016, and 2017 when this parliament was elected, and to work across parliament to see if there is any prospect of agreeing a way forward.
I want to ensure our future relationship is on the basis of a customs union because most of our businesses trade with the EU and the current direction of travel will put many out of business altogether. No country has ever done a trade deal with the EU in just 14 months as the government proposes, so we have a responsibility to make sure there is a bridge to our new trading relationship or risk all the consequences of a no deal Brexit later on.
I recognise that for some of my colleagues, the only right answer is a second referendum in which Remain wins. But all of this means putting amendments to legislation. If we are to put a deal to the people, we need a deal to put. If a referendum can be won in parliament, there has to be an amendment to allow it. If we can’t, we have to stop clinging to an unobtainable principle on what our perfect outcome might be, sought from a place none of us want to be in.
Politics is nothing if not the hard graft of negotiating through difficult choices in the interests of the many. The rest is protest. It’s time all MPs from every party stopped holding out for our perfect outcome and found the route to compromise. We could, as one Labour colleague put it to me, “keep our hands clean”, and stand on the sidelines watching this go through to the detriment of the people we represent. Or we could allow this to be debated at second reading to fight for the vision of the future we want. If we can’t get the numbers, if we can’t win support, if we can’t win our argument in parliament, then we have to take this argument to the country in a general election and put a real alternative to the people. This is the reality of where we are. It’s time we faced it.