I’ve come out of a meeting with the PM’s staff – the vacuum of leadership has never been more clear

  • It is blindingly obvious that all parties should sit down together to sort out the mess. That it is so difficult shows a political system in desperate need of change.

  • Chuka Umunna MP

I've come out of a meeting with the PM's staff – the vacuum of leadership has never been more clear

British politics is fundamentally broken. Exhibit A: the handling of Brexit by the ruling establishment of the two main parties. Both are split. Where there should have been leadership, there has been a vacuum since the process started in 2016.  

And, as one EU27 minister put it to me last week, “London has been negotiating with London and not us”, leading to “having your cake and eating it” fantasies on both sides of the House of Commons which the other side of the Brexit negotiating table was never going to accept. So what next?

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has refused to accept the invitation of the prime minister Theresa May to enter into cross party discussions on how to break the gridlock in Westminster by attaching the pre-condition that she should rule out leaving the EU with “no deal”.  

He is right that she should rule out a no-deal Brexit and drop her ridiculous, unachievable red lines, which were designed to appeal to one half of the country and ignored the wishes of the other. But setting preconditions at a moment of national crisis is playing party politics, not serious leadership.

It might go down well with a particular niche audience but not with the country at large. As my Labour colleague, Mike Gapes, put it: “Corbyn is prepared to hold talks with Hamas, Hezbollah, Assad and Iran without preconditions. But not with the UK prime minister.”

It is blindingly obvious that the leaders of all parties should sit down together and talk about how we sort out the mess. That this should be so difficult reinforces the sense of a political system in need of fundamental change.

I have been having conversations with ministers on Brexit for months. Labour Select Committee chairs Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper did so on Friday, and so have others in recent weeks. MPs of all parties must keep conversations in the national interest going, because that is what our constituents and the country expects.  

With that in mind, I – along with some other MP supporters of a People’s Vote – was invited to meet with the Cabinet Office minister David Lidington and the PM’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, this morning. 

It was a constructive discussion and we were given the opportunity to press our case. However, the PM still appears incapable of recognising the Commons really meant it when we rejected her deal – which is why she is going to bring what is essentially the same, unacceptable deal back for a vote next week. 

Our group included Conservative MPs Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston, and former Labour Shadow Cabinet Members Luciana Berger and Chris Leslie. We made it clear at that meeting that while it is unrealistic to expect anyone to do a volte face and pretend they no longer hold strong views on our EU relations (that would be dishonest), parliament should at least be able to agree on a process to narrow down the options. From there, we could work out which option commands the most votes and pursue to settle this issue, at least for the medium term. That is where such cross-party talks can make real progress.

Notwithstanding the parliamentary process, we also made it clear what the main decision facing the Commons is: do you wish to facilitate Brexit or give the people the final say with the ability to stop it?  There is no third way. The Labour leadership must make its choice and needs to have a clear position which can be delivered too. The spirit of Labour’s conference motion on Brexit gives the impression the party will now move to back a People’s Vote as the way out of this chaos, but the words were more ambiguous.

Following the failure to trigger an election through a vote of no confidence in the government this week, the wording commits the party “to support all options remaining on the table.” There is always a flurry of excitement when some on the frontbench acknowledges the obvious – that a People’s Vote may be the only way forward (it is) – but that is not the position adopted by those running the show. Supporting “options” is not a credible or sustainable policy.

Synthetic reasoning for not committing to a “People’s Vote” have emerged on the left of the party. They say the use of the phrase is offensive and we should therefore refer to it as a “public vote”. Apparently the wrong people are making the argument. Some suggest it’s not the right time, but don’t say when is.

Lexiteers claim that if the UK stays in the EU, it would stop a future administration ending austerity and implementing a radical manifesto. This is all nonsensical displacement activity to avoid doing what the overwhelming majority of our voters and our members – from the left to the centre-left – want.

Either you agree with the principle of referring this back to the people or you don’t. If you do, we don’t have time to mess around like this. There are 35 sitting days until exit day and, if we get an extension to Article 50, there will be a desire by our EU friends to get this matter resolved by the end of June when a new European Parliament will be instituted.

We estimate it will take a few months to conduct a People’s Vote (not the 12 months claimed by No 10). EU officials tell me a request for an extension would have to go in before the preparatory process for the next EU Council meeting (scheduled for 21 March) starts on 7 March.

However, there is understandable hesitation on the part of colleagues representing seats that voted Leave in supporting a People’s Vote. I represent a seat that scored the highest Remain vote and even I have faced threats of violence and been subject to abuse for the position I hold.

Yet, all agree a no-deal Brexit on 29 March would be catastrophic – the only way to avoid this is by way of extending the Article 50 process, and the EU have said they will agree to this for a democratic vote, not for more negotiation.

All the economic research shows these Leave areas will be hit hardest by any kind of Brexit.

During the People’s Vote march in October last year, Phil Wilson, the MP for Sedgefield, who represents such a community in the North East, highlighted Brexit’s likely impact on Leave-voting seats.

He said: “I was brought up in a coal mining community, the son of a miner. I know what happens when an industry closes – the unemployment, the poverty, the loss of hope, the years it takes to get back on your feet, the grievances that still play out today.  

“If Brexit goes ahead, grievances in communities will worsen. We did not get elected to make our constituents poorer and you know that’s what Brexit will do.”  

Wilson hits the nail on the head – protecting the wellbeing of the people is exactly why we must give our constituents the Final Say.