The dark clouds of Autumn gather above Westminster, though some would argue that the gloom surrounding Parliament never left.
The Brexit debate has ruled since June 2016 and it is difficult to fathom just how drastically politics has changed in that time. The number of events that have happened over the past three years which at any other time would have been unthinkable to observers are too many to list. The decision to prorogue parliament, its subsequent legal challenges and the successful Supreme Court appeal which followed is just the latest such example. That all this and more could happen in the short time since the beginning of September is a measure of how extraordinary things have become.
Parliamentary convention has been abandoned whilst familiar rules of conduct are being rewritten from one day to the next. The bizarre and, frankly, degrading spectacle of Members throwing themselves at the Speaker in protest against prorogation vividly illustrates this point. We are supposed to be a mature and serious legislature, an example to those around the world who seek to emulate our rightly-celebrated take on democracy. That colleagues carry on in this unedifying way is a source of such embarrassment that I have found attending the House in recent days difficult to say the least.
This lamentable decline in standards produced a particularly ugly flashpoint in the Commons more recently when the Prime Minister clashed with the Member for Dewsbury, Paula Sherriff, over his use of the phrase ‘surrender Act’ when describing the government’s legal obligation to avoid No Deal. We are, of course, used to fiery exchanges on the floor of the House, indeed, the adversarial nature of Parliament is central to British political life. However, what we are now more frequently witnessing goes beyond the typical cut and thrust of political debate and is dangerously divisive.
The reputational damage done to Parliament is already severe and the scar tissue will likely remain painful for generations. Responsible colleagues from across the House must begin dialling down the furious rhetoric and restore Parliament’s dignity before current trends become irreversibly entrenched. The long process of reuniting the country must then follow, but this can only happen once we have navigated the current Brexit impasse.
Despite having been a firm Remainer, my position has always been to honour the result of the referendum by leaving the EU as quickly and as smoothly as possible. When the chance to do so was presented to the House earlier in the year, I voted for it on no less than three separate occasions. Though Parliament repeatedly voted against, I remained confident that a withdrawal agreement would emerge that commanded a majority. Admittedly, in recent days my optimism has begun to wane.
As October 31 draws closer, it is increasingly difficult to see how a deal is passed. Notwithstanding my commitment to leaving, I have always maintained that departing without a deal would be a terrible outcome. Accordingly, I voted to revoke Article 50 at March’s indicative votes if No Deal looked likely. It is now with regret that I am beginning to conclude that a second referendum may be the only viable way to break the deadlock should an exit deal that Parliament is able to coalesce around not be brokered in time.
Whatever the outcome of the upcoming EU summit, a definitive decision on Brexit will have to be taken by Parliament this month. We simply cannot afford to let paralysis and uncertainty drag on indefinitely. The already rancorous political atmosphere will only intensify should we fail once again to choose how we proceed. Be assured that I do not say this lightly. I have tried my best over the past three years to express the strength of feeling in constituencies such as ours from behind the scenes whilst holding my Party line. I have been torn by a desire on the one hand to be a calm voice of reason within the Party while recognising that I expected unwavering support from backbench colleagues when I was a Minister. I do not exaggerate when I say there have been sleepless nights as I have wrestled with doing the right thing.
After three years and very little progress, Parliament must now put up or shut up for the good of the country, lest we face even darker days ahead.