No form of Brexit commands a majority in parliament – only a Final Say referendum will break the deadlock

According to one ambassador, when Theresa May was asked by Angela Merkel what she wanted from Europe, our PM ‘literally could not answer the question’

Chuka Umunna
Monday 17 December 2018 16:47
Donald Tusk: EU has 'treated prime minister May with the greatest respect'

On Thursday, a debate on serious youth violence was held in the main chamber of the House of Commons at which I gave a speech. In London alone, more than 40 people aged between 13 and 24 have lost their lives to youth violence this year. Fewer than 40 MPs were present for the debate.

One of the reasons I am so opposed to our exit from the European Union is because we were told it would solve all this country’s problems. The bloodshed on the streets and estates of my constituency in Lambeth is a tragedy and I can tell you leaving the EU will do absolutely nothing to help stop it. In fact, valuable time and resources which should be focused on an issue like this are instead being consumed by Brexit as the poor attendance in the Commons on this occasion illustrated. Brexit is taking up all of Whitehall and parliament’s bandwidth, such that there is not enough time left to devote to the real problems the UK faces.

Meanwhile in Brussels, at the European Council gathering, Theresa May was filmed rowing with the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Junker, whom she thought had accused her of being “nebulous” and imprecise with her Brexit proposals. He denied saying this in a heated discussion but the reports I have been given by EU diplomats of what actually happened in the room on Thursday – when EU leaders were discussing Brexit without cameras present – suggests “nebulous” and imprecise was very much the view of other EU leaders after their discussion with the PM.

The only hope May has of getting her “deal” through with the approval of her parliamentary party and the DUP, is by changing the legal text of the withdrawal agreement so it substantially alters the nature of the “backstop” – which aims to stop a hard border on the island of Ireland – or by getting rid of the backstop altogether.

She travelled to Brussels declaring she would be seeking “clarifications” and “assurances” the backstop will be only temporary, but in reality she wanted a lot more. Of course, she could not say this to the other EU leaders because they have been making it very clear for months there will be no deal without a backstop. She was perhaps hoping EU leaders, seeing her precarious position, would offer her this substantial concession on their own initiative. They did not.

There were few officials present; just leaders directly engaging, unfiltered, with one another. When May was asked by German chancellor Angela Merkel, “what is it that you want?” our PM was stumped for words: “she literally could not answer the question”, one ambassador told me.

This goes to the heart of the problem the prime minister finds herself in. She started her premiership by hitching herself to the mantras of the far right of her party who all along have insisted the EU will give us everything we want because the French want to sell us wine and brie, the Italians prosecco, the Germans cars and so on. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox and the rest of the Vote Leave brigade said we’d get all the benefits of membership of the EU club outside it and without having to abide by EU rules or pay a substantial subscription fee. This has turned out to be untrue – and it is this which has already done the “irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics” which the prime minister referred to in her Commons statement today. They also dismissed warnings by Sir John Major, Tony Blair and others that resolving the border issue between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Island would be fiendishly complex, a claim which has indeed turned out to be the case.

Instead of using the first few months of her premiership – when a leader is at their strongest – to disabuse these chancers and the snake oil they had been selling the nation, she appointed them to her cabinet and parroted their lines. The difference is that if the promises of the Vote Leave brigade prove undeliverable – which they are – the more extreme elements of her party will advocate leaving without a deal if she doesn’t get what she wants.

The prime minister rightly wants to avoid such a scenario – and so she hit a brick wall in the negotiations with our EU counterparts last year when they said “non”. Since then she has been trying with increasing desperation to find a way out. If she does attempt to leave the EU without a deal, cabinet ministers will walk – including justice secretary David Gauke. “I couldn’t support a conscious decision to crash out at the end of March and I don’t think there are many who could,” he told the Financial Times.

For their part, the EU institutions and the 27 other member states are increasingly exasperated by what they see: an incoherent UK negotiating position which reflects civil war in the Conservative Party and which does not meet the needs of the national interest.

If it reflected the national interest it would, at least, be grounded in reality. As one senior EU official put it to me over the weekend, “people are being polite publicly, but privately are deeply frustrated with the failure to face up to reality.” It is this which has undermined the negotiating position of the prime minister more than anything else – not calls for a people’s vote, as she claimed in her statement.

There is no deal on offer from the EU which does not involve a backstop other than the so-called “Norway-plus” option, in which the UK remains part of the customs union and the European Economic Area – “the single market” – but the front benches of both main parties have ruled this out. There is also no deal, whether negotiated by a Labour or a Conservative government, which does anything but harm to the economy. All outcomes, short of EU membership, are essentially about damage limitation and it is time my party came clean about this instead of pretending otherwise.

Where does this leave us? The EU side of the negotiating table views the PM’s strategy of the last year as simply kicking the can down the road. They believe “no deal” is a very real possibility. It is grossly irresponsible for the prime minister to delay the inevitable defeat of her plan while the clock ticks, given the real threat no-deal poses to our country and its future. We simply cannot afford to waste time like this. There are just 102 days to go until the scheduled date of exit and no sign of any resolution to this mess.

At a time of crisis, the public expect politicians to put aside party political tribal allegiances and work together in the national interest. So it should not be controversial for there to be dialogue between backbenchers of any party and cabinet ministers. This has been going on informally for some time now. Personally, I have also had the odd conversation with those on the other side of the argument – those who support Brexit – to get a sense of what they might agree to, and to judge whether their public rhetoric reflects their private position. Right now, pro-EU backbenchers are working to see if we can force an indicative vote on the PM’s withdrawal agreement before the Christmas recess starts on Friday.

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There is no majority in the Commons for leaving the EU without a deal and trading on WTO terms. Leaving with a Norway-plus type of deal has already been voted on during the passage of the trade bill and the EU withdrawal act through parliament with large majorities against. A Canada style free trade agreement is only possible with the same backstop as the one attached to May’s plan, which the DUP and many in the PM’s party oppose.

That really does leave only one solution – a people’s vote. A consensus is emerging around these options and the fact a referendum is likely to be the only way forward. Parliament has to find a way of putting in place a process to determine what happens – and quickly.

The sad truth about Whitney

We watched a fascinating and very sad documentary – Whitney – about the life of Whitney Houston, who died in 2012 at the age of 48. It is well worth watching and features testimony from her family, close friends and those who worked for her.

The media commentary would have us believe Bobby Brown, Houston’s estranged husband, was the primary influence behind her well-documented drug use, but in the documentary other members of her family suggested it was they who had most to answer for on that front.

Shockingly, Whitney’s half-brother Gary Garland-Houston accused Dionne Warwick’s sister – “Dee Dee” – of sexually abusing him and Whitney when they were children, a claim repeated by Whitney’s assistant, who reported being told of the abuse by the singer herself – Dionne and Dee Dee were cousins of Whitney’s. The entire family appeared to be on Whitney’s payroll at one point and the picture painted of her father, who in 2002 brought a $100m lawsuit against his daughter, is not a good one. Above all, the death of her daughter, Bobby Christina Brown, in 2015 added to the immense tragedy of the story.

Whitney had an extraordinary voice but the fame it brought her appeared to bring misery to her and her family.

Chuka Umunna is a Labour MP and former shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills

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