When British voters voted 52 per cent to 48 per cent to leave the EU I was delighted. It had been a long and sometimes gruelling campaign but at the end of it I thought the British people had made the right choice. If however, the British people had voted to remain, we would have remained in the EU and I would have respected the democratic will of the people. However, we voted to leave and the electorate’s decision is final.
While polls show that a large majority of the country, both former Leave and Remain voters, wish to respect the vote I accept that a minority remain bitterly disappointed. Unfortunately, amongst this group there are those who wish to frustrate the Brexit process, via the courts, the media and in Parliament. Among the myriad of amendments to the current European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, Liberal Democrat MPs are seeking a second EU referendum to reverse the first and stay in the European Union. This is a misguided and deeply divisive plan. Misguided because it misunderstands the EU and our EU partners and divisive because it democratically pitting MPs against the electorate.
Firstly, holding a referendum where one of the options is to rejoin the EU makes little sense. One suggestion, a referendum on a “final deal” where rejection would require the UK Government to seek to stay in the EU, is deeply flawed. There may be voters who vote to reject a final deal for many reasons: either too much say for the EU or potentially not enough say for the EU. Rejecting an agreement with the EU cannot be interpreted as a sign the electorate wish to stay in the EU. It would simply mean they reject the deal. What is the Government supposed to do with such an outcome? If the Government is forced to seek to prolong our EU membership there is no guarantee the EU27 would or could agree.
Seeking to rejoin the EU misunderstands the dynamics of the EU. There never was a status quo. In the last year we have seen many new visions for a future EU. The powerful German leader of the Social Democrats, Martin Schulz, has taken the opportunity to call for a “United States of Europe” while President Macron of France has called for a new Government of the euro area. If we tried to rejoin the EU it would be a very different EU and one where the UK would be even more out of place.
Secondly, those arguing for a second referendum misunderstand the nature of the UK’s parliamentary democracy. David Cameron promised a referendum in 2013, and won the 2015 election on a manifesto commitment to a referendum. Parliament voted 544 to 53 to hold the referendum and later by 498 to 144 to notify the EU of our intention to leave. If that was not enough parliamentary involvement, 85 per cent of the electorate voted for parties committed to leaving the EU this year’s election. The electorate’s and Parliament’s clear will is to leave the EU. Reversing that now would be deeply divisive, fundamentally undemocratic and destroy the trust of the British people who now just want the government to get on with delivering Brexit.
The voter’s decision is final. The last time the British people were promised a referendum that was not respected was on the EU Constitution. Tony Blair promised a referendum only to ditch the commitment and ram it through as the Lisbon Treaty. While electorates in France, the Netherlands and Ireland rejected the treaty, pushing on regardless came at the price of lost trust. Repeating this mistake would be highly corrosive. Arguing for it will be interpreted by our EU partners as a sign of weakness and so complicate the Brexit process.
Which brings us back to the small group who do wish to reverse the referendum result. Why do they think there would be a different result? Some hold the unsavoury view that they only need to wait for older voters to die to overturn the result. Others believe they could ask the same question to a different electorate, including EU nationals or 16-18 year olds. Still more hold the distasteful view that somehow the electorate did not or were incapable of understanding what they were voting for. These views tell us more about the holders of them than they do about British society.
There is no sign that the British people have changed their minds. Voters were subjected to threats of recession, WWIII and even the end of civilisation. Yet they still decided that, despite all that was said, they wished for our Parliament to make our own laws. The truth is the electorate were perfectly qualified and made a clear and informed choice. We have a great opportunity to use Brexit to do things better. Holding a divisive, expensive and ultimately pointless second referendum is an idea that should be consigned to the political dustbin.
Suella Fernandes is Conservative MP for Fareham who campaigned for Leave
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