Demonstrators with flags protest in London. File
When the prime minister applied for and got a second extension to the Article 50 period, she did so because she wanted to save the country from the disastrous consequences of leaving the EU without a deal. She did the right thing, putting the country first.
Theresa May has known about the consequences of no-deal for years. Paper after paper has crossed her desk, warning her what it would mean. Most recently the Cabinet Secretary – the most senior civil servant in the country – laid these consequences out before Cabinet: food price rises, shortages of some foods, chaos at the ports, the need to stockpile medicines, direct rule for Northern Ireland and, most dangerous of all, a weakening of our national security. No-deal would not only leave our country poorer, but it would also weaken us.
No responsible prime minister could embrace such an outcome. No leader could will these consequences on their own country. But how did we get here? Why was the application for an extension and the rejection of no-deal seen as such a betrayal, not only by Brexiteer Conservative MPs, but by a significant proportion of the population?
For the answer to this, the prime minister need only look in the mirror. In an age of cynicism about MPs people may brush off the latest Boris Johnson article, or switch channels to get away from the latest deliberately outrage provoking outburst from Nigel Farage, but they still listen to their prime minister.
For two years, May has legitimised and normalised a no-deal outcome through her slogan “no deal is better than a bad deal”. She has employed thousands of civil servants making preparations for an outcome no responsible leader could pursue. By keeping the option open she gave the time and space to people far less scrupulous than her to whip up support for this outcome. She portrayed as a bargaining chip a course she knew would involve colossal self-harm for the country. May has spent around £4bn preparing for no-deal. In my constituency I see real and urgent need all the time and there’s so much good that could be done with even a small portion of this money. It could be spent on schools trying to pay for enough staff.
Then, after legitimising this outcome for two years, the May turned up the heat with her “parliament against the people” broadcast a few weeks ago. “I am on your side,” she declared, after listing her view of the publics’ frustrations. “You are tired of the infighting, tired of the political games… Tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit…”
As parliamentarians, we too were on the public’s side, yet we were set against them by the prime minister. She said: “So far Parliament has done everything possible to avoid making a choice. All MPs have been willing to say is what they do not want.”
The implications were not lost on any of us who had been through the “enemies of the people” headlines or the memory, still fresh, of our murdered colleague Jo Cox.
The prime minister didn’t do these things because she is a bad person. She is a doughty, dutiful and diligent public servant. But duty is not just a busy schedule – it is about leadership too. Leadership which meets the moment the country is in and reaches beyond the immediate confines of party. It should not be left to backbench MPs to defend Parliamentary democracy when the leader of our country undermines it and legitimises its rejection.
But perhaps there is a glimmer of light in the cross-party talks she has begun. For in bringing the leader of the opposition into the process she has given him a choice. He can either strike a deal with her to deliver Brexit – and in so doing assume co-ownership of it. Or he can insist that whatever Brexit plan is agreed it is put to the people for their decision. If they endorse an actually existing Brexit proposal, then we leave on that basis. If they don’t and decide to remain after all, then that is also what we do.
For at this time, with no majority in Parliament and no clear route ahead, it is not only the prime minister, but also the leader of the opposition on whose shoulders the call of leadership falls.
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