I’m not surprised May pulled the vote – and I don’t feel sorry for her

  • I have little sympathy for the prime minister as she faces total chaos. Now it's time for backbenchers to up the ante

  • Chuka Umunna MP

Where did it all go wrong for Theresa May? Yes, she was left an almighty mess by her predecessor. Yes, the country is more divided than it has been in a generation. And yes, her party is split and so is parliament. However, she started her premiership by ignoring these facts and dancing to the tune of Jacob Rees-Mogg and the hard right of her party – an extreme minority in parliament and the country – instead of trying to pull us all together.

Despite the multifaceted nature of the 2016 result and the fact it was evenly balanced, those who voted Remain were treated like a fringe group. In her 2016 Conservative Party conference speech, she said a quiet revolution had taken place and juxtaposed the 17 million who voted to leave – saying they stood up and were not prepared to be ignored –with what her team spun as a liberal elite who wanted to Remain.  In so doing she dismissed 16 million citizens, including my constituents, who voted to retain the deal we have now as a member of the EU.

She said the 2016 vote signalled a deep sense of profound unease and a sense that the world works well for a privileged few, but not for them. Well, guess what? My constituency may have voted Remain in large numbers but our borough is the eighth most deprived local authority area in England and a third of our children live in poverty. We have higher rates of unemployment and we have more acute social problems than many Leave-voting areas. So my constituents have the same concerns – no one side of this debate has a monopoly on grievance. The only difference was that in Lambeth we did not believe leaving the EU would do anything to help us address those problems – in fact, we know it will do the opposite.

May ignored all of this and, at the start of her time in No 10, mimicked the language, overblown promises and fantasy claims of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and all the original Brexiteers whom she appointed to senior roles in her government.  This was always going to have consequences.

I have little sympathy for the PM now she faces total chaos within her own party. She had the opportunity to unite our nation and parliament when she took office in 2016 and she has failed miserably to do so. She deserves a large share of the blame for the predicament she found herself in early this morning, facing a heavy and embarrassing defeat. No MP I spoke to earlier thought she had a hope in hell of getting her plan through the House of Commons tomorrow.

So what next? She has just announced to the Commons that she is pulling the “meaningful vote” – given the inevitably of a heavy defeat this is unsurprising, as it could precipitate a series of events leading quickly to her resignation. She is now expected seek concessions from the EU at the EU Council meeting on Thursday and Friday, then return to the Commons for a second attempt next week.

The well-respected GP and Conservative chair of the Health Select Committee, Sarah Wollaston, will table an amendment at the first opportunity to provide for this issue to be referred back to the electorate in a People’s Vote. Sarah is very well respected and liked across all sides of the House, and has been quietly working cross-party to build support for such a move from the backbenches. This is important because no Tory MP, mainly for tribal reasons, would support such an initiative if it came from the Labour frontbench – though, for her amendment to pass, one of the main parties’ frontbenches will need to whip their MPs to support it.

It is striking that most of the initiative fighting Brexit has come from the backbenches ever since the whole Brexit process started. There would be no meaningful vote on the PM’s withdrawal agreement if a cross-party backbench coalition led by former Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve had not forced the government to provide for one in the EU Withdrawal Act last December (which provoked the first defeat of Theresa May’s administration on Brexit legislation.)

The former Conservative Business Minister Anna Soubry and I tabled an amendment to the Finance Bill last month which forced the Government to publish economic impact assessments of various proposed Brexit scenarios compared against the UK’s current deal as an EU member.

The latest win for anti-Brexiters came today, when the European Court of Justice ruled this morning that the UK can unilaterally revoke Article 50 (without the consent of the 27 other member states) and stay inside the EU if we want to. That means that if there was a Final Say vote and the public chose to stay in after the new information that has come to light over the last two years, we can stay in on our current terms. The case was brought by my Labour colleague, the former shadow chancellor Chris Leslie, the Liberal Democrat’s Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake, the SNP’s Joanna Cherry and others – all of whom took on considerable financial risk on the legal costs  if the case was unsuccessful.

As for my party’s frontbench, the expectation of our voters, supporters and members is that the Labour leadership will immediately table a vote of no confidence in the government and seek a snap general election. That is what the motion passed at the party conference back in September said we would do. But how realistic is the prospect of an election happening soon?

According to the House of Commons library, on just two occasions since 1895 has the loss of a motion of confidence prompted the prime minister to call an immediate general election. Under the 2011 Act, two thirds of the Commons would have to vote for an early election. If such a vote does carry, an overwhelming majority in the Labour family will expect a People’s Vote with Remain on the ballot to feature in the manifesto, with a commitment that we will campaign to stay in the EU and transform our country within that club of nations.

There is not a two thirds majority for an early election and so the hope is that Labour MPs will be whipped to support the Wollaston amendment if it comes next week.

As Sarah has said, “If you were about to undergo surgery, you would expect to know what the operation involved and to be informed about all the risks and benefits. It’s called informed consent and no decent surgeon would go ahead without it.” Her argument to parliamentary colleagues of all parties is this: “Brexit certainly is major surgery with far-reaching consequences. The surgery looks set to be far more radical than anything set out in the referendum and the side effects and complications are very different from what was promised.  We have to make it clear to government that it should not embark on potentially ruinous surgery without the informed consent of the British people.”

I would follow the advice of this doctor – the right diagnosis and the right prescription to fix this parliamentary mess.