How we can make the government give everyone a vote on the Brexit deal

  • There is increased appetite for a vote on whether we take the deal Theresa May negotiates for us or stay inside the EU

  • Chuka Umunna MP

“Give young people the opportunity to shape our futures for all our future’s sake.” Those were the words of Amatey Doku, deputy president of the National Union of Students, at the launch of the new cross-party People’s Vote campaign in front of a packed audience of 1,200 at the Electric Ballroom arts venue in Camden yesterday.

Whatever your opinion on Brexit, we can all agree that it is a big deal which will affect generations for generations. Today, those who stand to lose the most haven’t even been able to have their say on whether or not we stay in the EU; over half a million young people have become eligible to vote after the referendum.

Doku was speaking at the end of a weekend of campaigning events all over the country – from Devon to County Durham – where people from all walks of life, in all regions of the UK, took to the streets to argue that Brexit is not a done deal and is too important for politicians alone to decide. That is why they say there should be a national vote on the final Brexit deal. I agree.

The exact wording of the question to be put to the people would be a matter for parliament to decide. My personal view is that it should be a choice between leaving with the deal Theresa May returns from Brussels with in the autumn and staying in the EU. But first we must persuade a majority in the House of Commons that the people deserve to be brought back into the process to determine whether we accept the deal or not – that is the central goal of the People’s Vote campaign. As Doku said yesterday: “Give us the space, give us the platforms and give us that opportunity to take back control.”

Students are one of many civil society groups demanding they get a say on the Brexit deal. Malcolm MacLeod, who has worked in the NHS for over 30 years, first as an auxiliary nurse and now as a neurologist (and professor of neurology), explained at the launch how we rely on EU citizens to keep our NHS growing. He told the crowd how his hospital recently failed to get a single applicant for a consultant neurology post, a situation which will get even worse after we leave the EU. Because of Brexit, he said, “we are becoming a less and less attractive career destination for European healthcare professionals”.

Richard Reed, an entrepreneur who founded Innocent Smoothies, told us of the challenges businesses are already facing as a result of Brexit. He said that in business, whenever you do a deal “you have to do due diligence, you have to make sure it all checks up, that the numbers all add up” – this, he says, is a rallying cry, as much for Leave voters as Remainers, so we can check that the Brexit deal we end up with marries with the specifications of the Brexit people were sold by Boris Johnson and others.

Reed was followed by Marianna Mazzucato, the economics professor from UCL who has served on shadow chancellor John McDonell’s economic advisory group. She argued that the failure of the economy to deliver for enough people in our country had very little to do with the EU and so much more to do with poor domestic decisions by policymakers in the UK.

So what are the steps along the road to a people’s vote? Last December, against the wishes of the government and hard Brexiters led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the House of Commons forced Theresa May to give MPs a meaningful vote on the Brexit deal at the end of this year. Yesterday kicked off a series of rallies and events which will take place all over the country between now and when MPs make that vote.

A Withdrawal Agreement, including proposals for a transition period from March 2019 to December 2020 and a framework for our future trading relationship with the EU, is due to be agreed between the EU and UK at the EU Council in October. There will be votes in the European parliament and the UK parliament approving that deal shortly after. This “meaningful vote” will give MPs the opportunity to provide for a national poll of the people on whether they wish to accept what is on the table.

Due to the two week Easter recess which finishes today and the local elections on Thursday 3 May, things have been relatively quiet on Brexit in parliament over these last few weeks. That is about to change.

The House of Lords will be voting on the EU Withdrawal Bill, the main piece of legislation implementing Brexit, from today. It is highly likely the government will be defeated on a number of aspects of their hard Brexit proposal, setting the scene for a confrontation in the House of Commons shortly after the local elections. The two houses of parliament will have to iron out these differences and come to an agreed final form of the bill that can be passed and sent to the Queen for Royal Assent – this will not be straightforward.

Then there are two other crucial pieces of legislation that are currently in play, which will put in place a new framework for the UK’s trade if the UK leaves the EU: the Trade and Customs Bills. These bills will determine whether the UK remains in the single market and customs union if we leave the EU. The single market provides for tariff-free trade between EU countries and a common framework of rules including employment rights, competition policy, consumer and environment protections. EU countries come together through the customs union to apply the same tariffs to goods from outside the union.

As the government’s own economic analysis shows, we derive huge benefits from being part of both entities at present. The EU has offered the UK the opportunity to be part of both if we leave, but the PM has ruled this out. However, she lacks a majority to force this through parliament.

The reality is that Theresa May has no majority to take the UK out of the customs union and, if the Labour leadership do what our members and voters want – work to keep the UK in the single market – she may also have no majority to take the UK out of the single market either.

Realising this, ministers have pressed the pause button on the progress of both bills but will need to press “play” again soon, given this legislation will need to pass by the end of this year at the latest. We expect these pieces of legislation to resume by the summer – another potential flashpoint if the Government does not change its negotiating position.

In the last week alone, there have been two surveys showing a clear majority of the British public want a vote on the Brexit deal. The most recent poll by Opinium, commissioned by Open Britain, shows that 52 per cent support a people’s vote on the final deal, with 31 per cent opposed, and the campaign has only just started.

My fellow co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on EU Relations, Conservative MP Anna Soubry, Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas and Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran (who unseated a Tory MP in 2017 in Oxford) all spoke alongside me at the launch yesterday. We are all supportive of a people’s vote but we need help to get a majority of the House of Commons behind us. So please sign up to the campaign and make sure your MP hears your demand for a vote on the Brexit deal.