I tried my very best to stop this election happening so MPs would be forced into compromise over Brexit. I truly believe that was achievable and had we done it perhaps we could have even turned a corner in the way our politics is done too. But we are where we are.
Now we face a situation where voters are being asked to do two things simultaneously: the traditional thing at a general election of choosing a party to govern our country for a maximum of five years on a policy platform set out in general terms. But you’re also being asked to do something else too, and that’s give a mandate to untether Britain from the economic foundations that have rooted us in the broad values and trading relationships of our closest 27 neighbours. This isn’t a minor thing it’s massive, fundamental. It won’t last a maximum of five years, it will change our country for the foreseeable future. Unlike changing a government and reversing things like investment, this can’t be undone.
Democratically this is really dodgy. In a referendum you need over 50% of the votes cast to win, but a general election is normally won on much less than that. If polls are to be believed, parties promising a referendum will win the most amount of support tomorrow but won’t form a government, but the party promising ‘Brexit by Christmas’ will say it has a mandate despite having much less.
Lumping together policies on welfare, public services, global warming and the economy that will be refreshed at the next election alongside Brexit which won’t, is the most irresponsible thing I’ve seen from British politics in my lifetime.
If you don’t believe me ask yourself this: if we hadn’t had the 2016 referendum but had a general election instead where one party won a majority of one with 35% of the popular vote and had one line in their manifesto saying ‘we will leave the EU’, do you honestly think the country would have accepted that as permission to trigger Article 50 and deliver the deal that is currently on offer? I don’t think most people would, yet that is what is happening now.
I just want to remind you of my own approach to this. I put my heart and soul into Remain, I was the lead campaigner for the southeast and did everything from tour every coastal town between Dover and the Isle of Wight to doing a TV debate with Nigel Farage. All this and I’d only been an MP for a few of months.
After the referendum I set about finding a way forward that would honour the result and protect jobs and the economy. I travelled to Brussels and even to Norway and met their lead negotiator as a country outside of the EU but inside the Single Market (not Customs Union). I was a new MP learning the ropes but I threw my heart into supporting more experienced MPs to shape the debate and build consensus. I supported and voted for three kinds of Brexit: one that kept us inside the Single Market, then another that kept us in the Customs Union but outside of the Single Market, and then a third that was very similar to Norway which is called the ‘Common Market’ Brexit which was not dissimilar to the arrangements we had when we joined the EU back in the 70’s.
Theresa May didn’t just reject these ideas, she wouldn’t even discuss them. Worse, she and others sneered at us for suggesting these ways forward and flung those horrid robotic lines in our face ‘Brexit means Brexit’, ‘red, white and blue Brexit’, and so many others I’d rather not think of them. She only did speeches in Leave communities, set her own red lines, and came back with the worst deal in British history. Well that was a red line for me too, I will never, ever, allow something to happen that damages our community in Hove and Portslade. So I joined Boris Johnson, Rees-Mogg, and all the others in opposing the deal. The difference between me and them is that I was putting country first, they were putting their careers first.
Ever since ‘meaningful vote one’ was defeated I haven’t simply put all my energy into stopping this deal, I’ve been working so hard on delivering a compromise. Make no mistake, I hate this deal and I want to Remain, but I won’t do so at the expense of our democracy or in a way that deepens the chasm that already exists in our politics. So together with Phil Wilson we devised the ‘confirmatory referendum’ idea and made an offer to government: we’ll allow your deal to pass through parliament providing you also put it to the people for a final say referendum. This time based on facts, not promises. This time binding on parliament (no ‘best of three’ or ‘neverendum’).
How we were doing things was as important as what we were trying to achieve. We immediately worked with people from all parties. Sitting down with MPs I’d never talked to, meeting cabinet ministers and leaders of every party in the Commons, including the prime minister and Jeremy Corbyn. It was shatteringly tiring and I was often in my office in parliament over weekends working the phones and appearing on the media to promote and explain the concept. The numbers grew and grew.
So it came to pass that the very first time I introduced an amendment to the Commons and pressed it to the vote it just so happened to be on the biggest issue of our times and on a subject I knew millions of people cared passionately about. We were defeated by just 12 votes back in April, but that same week the prime minister lost by 58 on her third attempt. We were moving towards a majority and everyone knew it. By the time of ‘Super Saturday’ I knew we had the numbers providing Boris Johnson was abrasive and arrogant in the Commons (sad, but these things matter). He characteristically was and several key Tory ‘waverers’ told me they were onboard. Doing that speech without notes and straight from the heart was terrifying but I knew what I wanted to say and when I’m scared I always think of our community here and know that you’d rather I tried and got things wrong than sat quietly on the sidelines. The Tories knew we had the numbers too, so 30 seconds before the vote, Boris Johnson withdrew his motion and the vote collapsed. So never believe him when he says ‘parliament dithered and blocked’ because we didn’t, it was him.
The rest is history. The Tories scuppered it and the Lib Dems plunged us into a general election and here we are.
The choice you face locally is stark. My Tory opponent, who used to work for Michael Gove just as Dominic Cummings did, is a fervent supporter of a hard Brexit. So strong an advocate of Brexit is he that the local Brexit Party candidate stood down in order to support him based on assurances he’d received about how hard he would fight for a hard Brexit (a new candidate was imposed later that day). At a recent hustings, Mr Nemeth told the audience that he was the candidate to “talk up Brexit” because “I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for all of us”. The problem is, when he was asked to name some specific ‘fantastic opportunities’ that exceeded those we already had, he couldn’t. For me this simply isn’t good enough.
So the choice locally is stark, someone who will ram through Brexit even if it means, which is likely, leaving with no-deal. Or me, who will do my best to give our country the opportunity for one final national debate grounded the realities of a deal. I will, like last time, put my heart into campaigning for Remain but if the country chooses to leave on the terms set out then I will put all my energies into healing our country and making the best of a very bad situation. I am very pleased to say that the so-called ‘Kyle-Wilson’ principal on Brexit has been included in the Labour manifesto with a guarantee of holding the confirmatory referendum by June next year.
Since the referendum there have been three prime ministers and two general elections. There have been two deals. Both those deals were said by government to represent the ‘will of the people’ so by definition they both can’t be right. There’s only one way to ask if the deal represents the will of the people and that’s to ask them!
Just like tackling the rail crisis, I’ve always tried to find solutions to big problems and been openhearted by working with people from across the political divide. I don’t just oppose and walk away, I try to help us move forward. This is the approach I will continue to bring if you give me the chance tomorrow, I believe our community deserves nothing less.