Ruling out a ‘no-deal’ Brexit will only undermine faith in our democracy, says John Baron MP.

Last week’s statement and debate about progress regarding EU negotiations might for some feel like ‘groundhog’ day. We had the usual lazy chorus from a vociferous minority on the Remain side that ‘politics is broken’ and how lamentable the economic situation was. However, there were two key developments which could give cause for joy and dismay – depending on one’s position. The Prime Minister, bowing to some of her ‘Remain’ ministers, ceded decisions about taking ‘no deal’ off the table and extending Article 50 to the House. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn committed the Labour party to a second referendum. Both are key decisions that may well affect the outcome.

It should perhaps first be suggested that the lazy chorus ignores the fact that our Parliamentary system of government is actually working rather well. It is accommodating a robust and passionate debate about the UK’s future relationship with the EU. This is an important debate with Parliament at the epicentre, and this is how it should be. Contrast this with France, where a hike in fuel duties has left people dead in the streets, or the US, where there has been little government for months, and we should be proud that our system is working so well. The British have always been stoical and reluctant to move to extremes.

Movement from both sides of the House has proved illuminating. There must be a concern that the Prime Minister’s next steps will now make a good deal less likely because the EU will expect Parliament to defeat ‘no deal’ and extend Article 50. At this crucial stage of the negotiations, no deal should be left ‘on the table’ otherwise the party opposite knows you cannot walk away. Business people understand this point. This is why on 27th February I voted against the Cooper amendment endorsing these next steps – and was defeated by 502-20!

It cannot be denied that many in the House of Commons favour ‘taking no deal off the table’. This is disingenuous, since it is the default outcome of the massive vote to trigger Article 50 in the event that no agreement is struck – all MPs were aware of this. As the Government has repeatedly stressed, there are only two ways of taking no deal ‘off the table’ – either by agreeing a deal, or by revoking the triggering of Article 50, thereby halting the Brexit process. Extending Article 50, and pushing back Brexit day, does not change these essential truths.

There is no doubt this is a complex negotiation. As someone who campaigned to leave the EU, I accept the need for compromise from both sides. After 45 years of integration, it was never going to be easy to jump from imperfection to perfection in a single bound. And it remains in the balance as to whether the Prime Minister’s amended Withdrawal Agreement will succeed in carrying the House when it is eventually presented. What is clear is that, for any chance of success, the indefinite feature of the backstop has to be sorted.

Of the two components of the Withdrawal Agreement, many of us can stomach the transition period. Whatever its faults, it is time-limited and, essentially, no worse than being in the EU. The problem is the second component: the backstop. No sensible person would lock themselves into an agreement which gave the other party the sole right to determine when you exit. Hence my and other colleagues’ early efforts to get No.10 to think again, by way of an amendment on 15 January calling for a UK unilateral exit mechanism. Although defeated by 600-24, a similar amendment tabled by Sir Graham Brady MP was passed a fortnight later which we supported.

Any Government-negotiated change to the backstop must be meaningful and robust. It may have to allow the EU to save face, but it must achieve the House’s instruction courtesy of the Brady Amendment. For this to succeed, it would require a cast-iron assurance from the Government that any change must have legal force, whilst ensuring a suitable timetable.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister should stand firm and not be deflected from her course. As I suggested during her statement this week, the time has come for her to face down those ministers threatening to resign unless ‘no deal’ is ruled out. The fact that she goes to such lengths to indulge hardline remain supporters inside the Government shows how wrong the three Tory splitters are to allege that the Conservatives are in hoc to the ‘extreme right’ of the party.

Instead of daring the Prime Minister to dismiss them, dissenting ministers, however senior, should take the initiative and follow the example of their Brexit-supporting former colleagues in stepping down to oppose Government policy from the backbenches. Indeed, when I opposed and voted against the Iraq War in 2003, I accepted that I had to resign as a shadow health minister in order to so do.

But perhaps this is of less consequence than the major shift we have seen from Labour this week when officially adopting a second referendum. This is clear blue water between the two main parties – and of course at odds with the General Election manifesto, of which Corbyn and his top team are inordinately proud, on which every Labour candidate stood fewer than two years ago.

A second referendum remains a terrible idea. It is condescending to allege people did not know what they were voting for, given the slew of ‘warnings’ issued to them at the time of the referendum which they wisely chose to discount. So catastrophic were the warnings, including the prediction that an extra 500,000 people would be unemployed by Christmas 2016 should people vote to leave the EU, that the Bank of England had to very publically apologise afterwards for getting it so wrong. A second referendum is also illogical, because if you believe people voted the wrong way last time, why should they not do so again? And why not then have a third and fourth referendum?

Finally, it is also dangerous – over 17 million people voted to leave the EU just three years ago. If they believe an out-of-touch élite is setting aside their votes because it disagrees with their choice, people may think twice about voting again in future. In a representative democracy, this poses obvious problems of trust and legitimacy. Those people erroneously complaining about our broken politics may ironically then end up being hoisted by their own petard!

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