Thursday 19 September 2019

Chuka Umunna: 'There's just one way for Britain to solve this Brexit mess - a People's Vote'

Facing up: An anti-Brexit demonstrator wears a mask bearing the stars of the European flag, during a protest outside the houses of Parliament, in London. Photo: AP
Facing up: An anti-Brexit demonstrator wears a mask bearing the stars of the European flag, during a protest outside the houses of Parliament, in London. Photo: AP

Chuka Umunna

This week a debate on serious youth violence was held in the main chamber of the House of Commons at which I gave a speech. In London alone, more than 40 people aged between 13 and 24 have lost their lives to youth violence this year. Fewer than 40 MPs were present for the debate.

One of the reasons I am so opposed to our exit from the European Union is because we were told it would solve all this country's problems. The bloodshed on the streets and estates of my constituency in Lambeth is a tragedy and I can tell you, leaving the EU will do absolutely nothing to help stop it. In fact, valuable time and resources which should be focused on an issue like this are instead being consumed by Brexit as the poor attendance in the Commons on this occasion illustrated. Brexit is taking up all of Whitehall and parliament's bandwidth, such that there is not enough time left to devote to the real problems the UK faces.

Meanwhile in Brussels, at the European Council gathering, Theresa May was filmed rowing with the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Junker, whom she thought had accused her of being "nebulous" and imprecise with her Brexit proposals. He denied saying this in a heated discussion but the reports I have been given by EU diplomats of what actually happened in the room on Thursday - when EU leaders were discussing Brexit without cameras present - suggests "nebulous" and imprecise was very much the view of other EU leaders after their discussion with the PM.

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The only hope May has of getting her "deal" through with the approval of her parliamentary party and the DUP is by changing the legal text of the withdrawal agreement so it substantially alters the nature of the "backstop" - which aims to stop a hard Border on the island of Ireland - or by getting rid of the backstop altogether.

She travelled to Brussels declaring she would be seeking "clarifications" and "assurances" the backstop will be only temporary, but in reality she wanted a lot more. Of course, she could not say this to the other EU leaders because they have been making it very clear for months there will be no deal without a backstop. She was perhaps hoping EU leaders, seeing her precarious position, would offer her this substantial concession on their own initiative. They did not.

There were few officials present; just leaders directly engaging, unfiltered, with one another. When May was asked by German Chancellor Angela Merkel "what is it that you want?" the PM was stumped for words. "She literally could not answer the question," one ambassador told me.

This goes to the heart of the problem the prime minister finds herself in. She started her premiership by hitching herself to the mantras of the far right of her party, which all along has insisted the EU will give the UK everything it wants because the French want to sell it wine and brie, the Italians prosecco, the Germans cars and so on. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox and the rest of the Vote Leave brigade said we'd get all the benefits of membership of the EU club outside it and without having to abide by EU rules or pay a substantial subscription fee. This has turned out to be untrue - and it is this which has already done the "irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics" which the prime minister referred to in her Commons statement.

They also dismissed warnings by John Major, Tony Blair and others that resolving the Border issue between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Island would be fiendishly complex, a claim which has indeed turned out to be the case.

Instead of using the first few months of her premiership - when a leader is at their strongest - to disabuse these chancers and the snake oil they had been selling the nation, she appointed them to her cabinet and parroted their lines. The difference is that if the promises of the Vote Leave brigade prove undeliverable - which they are - the more extreme elements of her party will advocate leaving without a deal if she doesn't get what she wants.

For their part, the EU institutions and the 27 other member states are increasingly exasperated by what they see: an incoherent UK negotiating position which reflects civil war in the Conservative Party and which does not meet the needs of the national interest.

If it reflected the national interest it would, at least, be grounded in reality. As one senior EU official put it to me over the weekend, "people are being polite publicly, but privately are deeply frustrated with the failure to face up to reality".

There is no deal on offer from the EU which does not involve a backstop other than the so-called "Norway-plus" option, in which the UK remains part of the customs union and the European Economic Area - "the single market" - but the front benches of both main parties have ruled this out.

There is also no deal, whether negotiated by a Labour or a Conservative government, which does anything but harm to the economy.

At a time of crisis, the public expect politicians to put aside party political tribal allegiances and work together in the national interest.

There is no majority in the Commons for leaving the EU without a deal and trading on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms. That really does leave only one solution - a People's Vote. A consensus is emerging around these options and the fact a referendum is likely to be the only way forward. Parliament has to find a way of putting in place a process to determine what happens - and quickly.

Chuka Umunna is a Labour MP

Irish Independent

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