Whether I vote for a new Brexit deal rather depends on what’s in it

Whether I vote for a new Brexit deal rather depends on what’s in it

The below is an edited version of an address delivered to the Bruges Group in Manchester on 30th September 2019.

I stand before you, as someone making what I believe, is a reasonable request, but who has been excoriated as a ‘right wing extremist’ as a result. Here is the shocking thing I crave: I want to live in a free country, that elects its own Government and makes its own laws and lives in peace under them. What Margaret Thatcher famously summarised as a free society, under a rule of law. I ask in all humility, what is extreme about that?

I was already wary of the growing power of the European Union over our everyday lives, when I was first elected to the House of Commons, back in 2001. Indeed, I made my maiden speech on the 4th July 2001 against the ratification of the Treaty of Nice (again, by the way, without a referendum). 

However, what really convinced me that we had to leave the EU was my time as shadow Europe Minister, when I spent 14 nights in the House of Commons debating the fine details and intricacies of the 300-page Lisbon Treaty. As we proceeded, it became blindingly obvious that we could not change so much as a punctuation mark of that treaty and that Parliament had been reduced to a mere rubber stamp, for the decisions of others, whom we could neither elect nor remove.

At the end of that process, I said to myself: “This is bonkers, we have got to get out of this, as we are no longer in charge of own country” – and from that point on, I resolved to fight for us to Leave the EU. 

I well remember at the time, Gordon Brown and his cohorts thought they had been terribly clever in ramming the Lisbon Treaty through Parliament, again without a referendum. But I believe, it was that action that finally began to shift public opinion in this country against the undemocratic growth of the EU superstate, led to the rise of UKIP and to the eventual referendum in 2016. In other words, the federalists, who thought they were being quite ingenious in 2008, in fact created the conditions by which we voted to leave their beloved EU, just eight years later. This provides a lesson for our current situation. Indeed, The Sun this morning reports that Labour’s own private polling estimates they will lose around 100 seats in a near term general election, which they are now clearly desperate to avoid.  

Those politicians – Blair, Mandelson, Grieve, Hammond, Heseltine, Benn, Cooper and Swinson – who will never support us leaving the EU under any circumstances whatsoever, need to understand that the more they conspire to keep us in the EU, against the democratically expressed wishes of our own people, who live in the real world outside of the North London bubble, the more frustrated and angry those people will become. 

My message to those politicians is this: if you contrive to surrender – and it is a surrender – the destiny of your country to a foreign entity, don’t then whinge when people see through you and become somewhat ‘ticked off’ with you as a result.

It is not clear, at present, whether or not we will be able to achieve a deal with the European Union that can then be put to Parliament – in effect as Meaningful Vote 4. Even if this is the case, after the events of last week, I am unconvinced that 30 or so Labour MPs, under the threat of Momentum and trigger ballots, are going to come riding over the hill, to vote with the Government. For my part, I have already been asked multiple times by the media if I will vote for it or not, to which I have consistently replied: “It rather depends what’s in it!” 

However, if there is a deal, as a so-called “Spartan”, if it means that we genuinely leave the EU at Halloween, then I will be the first one in the Aye lobby. But, if it really means we don’t, I will be against it. No amount of brow-beating by anybody will change my mind.

Fundamentally, MPs of all parties promised the people of this country that we would respect their decision made in the 2016 referendum. We are in our current predicament because for many MPs, who are committed federalists and always have been,  the people had the temerity to give the wrong answer. We must now keep going, until that promise is honoured, or our entire democracy – and the faith of our people in it – is in danger.

I have acquired, much to my surprise, something of a minor reputation for quoting poetry on these occasions – much to the dislike of certain Guardian journalists. The most appropriate words I could find for this scenario, come from Robert Frost, who said, in his poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

We, as Members of Parliament, made a promise to the British people that if they voted to leave the European Union, we would honour their wishes. If we do not, how will they ever believe us in the future?

In 1997, I fought Ken Livingstone, as the Tory candidate in Brent East. I can reveal today that I had him worried: just another 16,000 teensy weensy little votes and I would have defeated him! But in a hustings at Willesden Green Library, he said something I have never forgotten: “As an MP, a general election is an opportunity to commune with your 68,000 employers.” I have 80,000 employers in Rayleigh and Wickford – but the principle is exactly the same. The people elect MPs – not the other way around, and we forget that at our peril. 

To conclude, we are at a crossroads in our national destiny. We can bow the knee to the EU, and be told to vote again on a decision we have already taken, until we come up with the ‘right answer’, as some other EU countries have previously done. Historically, those who have sought to bully us in these islands have never succeeded, and they will fail again now.

Conversely, we can press on, with the order given to us by the British people via the referendum, to set our country free. The ‘sovereignty of Parliament’ only derives from the consent of the electorate. This Parliament is now past its sell-by date – and the country knows it. Too many MPs have forgotten this simple truth which underlines our entire system.  If they carry on as they are, they should “ask not for whom the bell tolls – for it tolls for them.”