In eight days time one of the biggest votes is due to take place in the House of Commons since MPs voted to approve military action in the Iraq War on 18 March 2003.
Brexit and the Iraq War are completely different issues but there are some striking similarities. Obvious ones are that the government and opposition frontbenches supported the same proposition. Then it was the Iraq War, and now they are both committed to delivering the best Brexit deal, albeit Labour is committed to a “jobs first” Brexit. In both cases over 700,000 people took to the streets of the capital to object to what was and is now happening. Today we are delivering The Independent’s Final Say petition signed by over 1 million people.
Above all, though, the key Commons vote is one where each MP will have to make a very individual decision. There are many votes that take place where MPs are happy to be guided by the whips and trust the leadership to apply their party’s values in a sensible way. On an issue of this magnitude you do not simply follow the whip – or you would be very unwise to do so because this issue is of such importance that it is one of those votes, like that on the Iraq War, on which you will forever be judged. There will be no hiding place for anyone.
And, since I wrote last week, the predictions of what will happen to jobs and livelihoods across the country underline that there is no such thing as a “good” or “jobs first” Brexit deal – it is a fiction. Some dismiss what the economists tell us will be visited upon jobs and businesses if Britain carries on along its current trajectory. The environment secretary Michael Gove said in July 2016 “I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts” when it was put to him that very few respected organisations – like our trade unions, business groups or respected economic forecasters – were of the view Brexit would be good for the economy.
Well, exit day has not even arrived yet and the impact of the Brexit vote has already raised the cost of living, led to thousands of job losses and seen the UK go from being the fastest growing G7 economy to one of the slowest. No wonder, in spite of Gove’s declaration, surveys show that the experts he once slagged off are still held in considerably higher regard and trusted far more by the public – that’s because they get it right more than many politicians do.
After the amendment Anna Soubry and I tabled to the government’s Finance Bill forced ministers to disclose the economic impact of Brexit relative to the deal we have as members of the EU, we now know the official forecasts are that we will be poorer under any form of Brexit, compared with staying in the EU. GDP is estimated to contract by 6.7 per cent over 15 years under Gove’s preferred type of hard Brexit. Last week the Bank of England published its predictions showing that if we left with no deal – as advocated by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg – unemployment could shoot up to 7.5 per cent and house prices could fall by a third.
It is for this reason that parliamentary support for a people’s vote, giving people the final say on how and whether we leave the EU, grows every week. Gove acknowledged this in his interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday when he said, “there is a real risk that if we don’t vote for this deal, there may be a majority in the House of Commons for a second referendum, or a less good deal.” I have yet to meet anyone in Westminster who believes parliament will vote for the flawed deal the PM is trying to sell us and therefore Gove acknowledges that a people’s vote is a very real possibility. The main party leaders will not currently commit to giving us one and it is clear that without the support of the leader of the opposition or the prime minister herself for such a cross party move, it cannot succeed.
On the government side, many MPs worry about seeming to be disloyal to their PM so indicate privately they will come on board with the concept if her “deal” falls. But it is clear her plan will not command a majority, and so there is no need to wait and see what is now certain. Others, mainly on the Labour side, want to exhaust the chance of using this crisis to precipitate an early general election but it is clear there is not the requisite two thirds majority in the House for that to happen. Meanwhile valuable time when the country needs leadership is being wasted.
In short, there is a huge danger that the moment when parliament could secure a public vote on the deal in the way Gove describes is lost due to delay and prevarication, denying the people their democratic right to a say over our destiny. Gove will welcome this, as the co-leader of Vote Leave, but many on the other side of the Brexit argument will be furious if the opportunity for a vote is missed. If this disaster proceeds this may come to be seen as a “Tory Brexit” but many flocked to Labour at last year’s general election in the expectation we would do all we can to stop that “Tory Brexit.” If Labour are seen as the midwives of a Tory Brexit through delay and inaction, we will never be forgiven, in particular by future generations who were inspired by our message. We must seize the moment.