The general election has changed the nature of the Brexit debate in Westminster
For those of us in the Labour party who want to put the brakes on Brexit, the result of the general election last month means it is ‘game on’. Whether we can stop Brexit or simply shape it remains to be seen but if we do not try, we will never know.
We all know that our party’s position on Europe at the last election was a fudge. It may have been a fudge that partially paid off at the ballot box this time, but we need to be honest that we faced both ways on Brexit.
In constituencies like mine in south-east London, I stated unequivocally that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the single market. Jobs, investment and trade should be the priority in negotiations I said, not immigration controls and ‘sovereignty’.
In other parts of the country, the Labour leaflets read quite differently – some did not mention Brexit at all, while others promised to deliver it. So, what makes me so hopeful?
The good sense of the British people.
This time last year, 17 million people voted to leave the European Union, 16 million voted to remain and 13 million who could have voted chose not to. We know that some of those who did not vote last year made it to polling stations this year.
The referendum was a snapshot in time. Remember people laughing at David Cameron on television when he came back from the EU having promised the earth, but with little to offer? Remember those who wanted extra money for the National Health Service before Nigel Farage and his cronies admitted it was a big fat lie? I know there were people who wanted to ‘control’ immigration and people who were looking for something and someone to blame for their own very real troubles but let us not forget the dire, depressing debate that failed to get to the real issues.
I think something has changed in the last few months; many people may now be starting to wonder whether it is all worth it.
When the country is shaken from a string of appalling terrorist attacks, when disasters like the Grenfell Tower fire lead us all to ask some pretty fundamental questions about how such a tragedy could happen in 21st century Britain, the sight of David Davis bumbling off to Brussels to start the negotiations felt like a sideshow.
We have massive challenges facing us as a country and the idea that government spends the next two years recreating systems that by and large work pretty well appals me.
Take the Home Office. Its priority should be tackling terrorism and cyber security. Instead it has to work out how to deal with EU citizens’ rights and what the new ‘post-Brexit’ immigration system would look like for EU citizens and people from countries inside the European Economic Area.
Take health. There is a crisis in accident and emergency units across our country and we are failing to give older people the care they deserve. Yet Brexit means Jeremy Hunt and his officials have to work out how to deal with the UK coming out of the European Medicines Agency (the body which gets new drugs to market across Europe) and how to plug the gap in EU nurses and other staff who no longer want to come here.
This time last year over 1,300 EU nurses registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council. In April it was 43. It takes four years to train a nurse – this is a massive problem.
At some point the British people are going to question the government’s priorities and the referendum will feel like a long time ago.
We have already seen rising prices in the shops and more expensive holidays because of the devalued pound – and we have not left yet. Economic growth has now fallen to the lowest in the G7 and there is a list of businesses – from city firms to car and aircraft manufacturers – which are now seriously considering their next move. As the Brexit reality starts to hit, the public mood may start to shift.
None of us know what will be negotiated, but in the meantime I will be involved in the biggest exercise in parliamentary damage limitation that we have ever seen.
For starters, we should aim to keep Britain in the single market and customs union, as well as opposing the repeal of the EEA Act – the legislation which underpins our membership of the single market – until such time as there is a better trade deal on the table. No one wants to see a queue of lorries at Dover.
Ensuring we have an immigration system that works for the economy and one where we do not cut our nose off to spite our face is crucial. The case for immigration in the context of our ageing society can no longer be ignored. Making the case for our place in Europe as a route to cementing our influence in the world now falls to us.
Democracy did not start or end on 23 June 2016. It is a process, not an event, and every one of us who is against the needlessly complicated, disruptive and economically damaging Brexit being pursued by Theresa May and her friends needs to speak out now. It is too important not to.
Heidi Alexander is MP for Lewisham East. She tweets at @heidi_mp
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