How MPs can defeat no-deal Brexit this week, and pull the rug out from under the No 10 fanatics

Too often the voices of sanity and reason have found themselves put on the back foot by a ruthless and determined Downing Street. Tomorrow, parliament can change that

Chuka Umunna
Monday 02 September 2019 16:45 BST
Tony Blair says Brexit is 'shocking, irresponsible, dangerous'

The House of Commons returns tomorrow for a momentous constitutional battle between a Conservative government, hijacked by a Brexit elite (the 2016 Vote Leave campaign team), and the representatives of the people, democratically elected to parliament in 2017.

There has been a lot of anger and outrage at the government’s attempt to ram through a no-deal Brexit but that cannot be allowed to obscure the main issue here. Let us be clear: stopping a no-deal Brexit is vital but stopping Brexit altogether must be the goal.

The reason, after all, why parliament has not been able to agree a deal is because Brexit in the form it was promised is impossible to deliver. So Brexit IS the problem, whether it is of the Tory variety or the alternative Labour Brexit deal Jeremy Corbyn says he will negotiate if Labour takes office.

The Liberal Democrats rule nothing out when it comes to stopping Brexit, the first stage of which is to stop no deal. We are working closely with others to do this – yet many of them (such as former chancellor Philip Hammond) still want to leave the EU with some kind of deal.

If the last three years have taught us anything, it is that there is no deal which compares to EU membership – that is why we are unequivocally the UK’s biggest and strongest Remain party.

The focus of efforts this week will be legislating to stop the country crashing out of the EU without a deal by securing an Article 50 extension and we are optimistic that this can be achieved. It is important that we are clear how long an extension should be, so it can’t be avoided by the government – it would need to last at least two months for a general election to take place and a further five-six months for a new referendum.

If the length of extension is vague and unspecified the government will simply apply to extend for, say, a further 12 hours and then claim the legal requirements to ask for one have been satisfied.

We also need to be clear on the purpose. We want an extension to give the people a final say on this sorry mess. If, as an alternative, it was for a general election then that election must take place before the scheduled date of Brexit, with a view to any new government holding a people’s vote on the issue.

I know there are some who would rather not talk about the purpose of an extension for fear of exposing divisions in their parties (namely the Labour Party) but you cannot claim to want to stop a no-deal Brexit if you are not prepared to contemplate the means. Ultimately, you can only stop the UK leaving the EU without a deal by voting for a deal or by voting in some way to stop Brexit altogether – this is a choice which cannot be ducked.

In spite of all the above, the lesson of the last three months has been that too often the voices of sanity and reason have found themselves put on the back foot by a ruthless and determined No 10.

We saw from the Vote Leave campaign that the group now running this government is prepared to lie, cheat and break the rules to win at any cost. This is not hyperbole – the Vote Leave campaign was found to have broken the law by the Electoral Commission and Boris Johnson, its leading figurehead, was publicly reprimanded by the chair of the UK Statistics Authority for his claim that £350m extra per week could be spent on the NHS as a consequence of Brexit. We can all see they have shown they are prepared to disregard the usual constitutional conventions in this country.

Even if the Commons successfully legislates this week, we cannot presume a further extension will even be granted – it is likely, though not guaranteed.

There is a lot of ill will towards the Johnson administration in EU capitals given the Brexiteers’ general behaviour towards our closest friends and allies. And there is a risk that Johnson’s fellow right-wing nationalist leaders on the European Council do his bidding to facilitate a no-deal Brexit in some way.

This is why the Commons must also look at ways to ensure parliament has the opportunity to revoke Article 50 if necessary – as an insurance policy. Again, there are some who would prefer not to mention “revoking” but this is also an issue which cannot be ducked as more than 6 million people have illustrated by signing the biggest ever parliamentary petition calling for it.

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There has been much chat about the various utterances of cabinet ministers who decried a no-deal Brexit and now have taken a different view because it suits their personal political interests – Sajid Javid, Matt Hancock, Amber Rudd and Nicky Morgan all come to mind. But perhaps the most important was that of Michael Gove, writing in the Brexit-supporting Daily Mail, on 10 March this year.

Gove said: “We didn’t vote to leave without a deal. That wasn’t the message of the campaign I helped lead.” Even he concedes that the disgraceful no-deal project of which he is now a central figure, has no mandate. If even he accepts this – surely this whole sorry saga of Brexit must be abandoned altogether? So, by all means rail against a no-deal Brexit, but stopping it from happening will be a job half done if we don’t stop Brexit altogether.

Chuka Umunna is the Liberal Democrat MP for Streatham

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