Early 2019 has already shown itself to be a momentous time in British political history. Indeed in my 18 years as the Member of Parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster, I cannot recall a more turbulent time in Parliament as the debate surrounding the UK’s departure from the European Union continues unabated.
In the lead up to the meaningful vote in January on the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement, I was contacted by over a thousand constituents each expressing a sincere and heartfelt view on the merits and drawbacks of the proposed Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration. As a serving Minister I voted in support of the Withdrawal Agreement which I regard as representing a positive first step out of the European Union. As I outlined in November, it may not have been perfect though any compromise was always likely to fail in satisfying all sides of this most impassioned debate. However there has, as yet, been no constructive and realistic alternative vision for the UK’s departure from the EU among those MPs who have been so critical of the Prime Minister. We shall have to see what is brought back to the House in the coming days and weeks but I remain confident that a deal will be passed as a number of my colleagues come to their senses.
Immediately after I was re-elected in July 2017, I remember speaking to Andrew Neil on the BBC about how important it was that the minority administration reached out to politicians from other parties to craft an approach to Brexit that will enjoy widespread public approval. Now more than ever, this approach is crucial to arriving at a solution for our departure which enjoys the support of as broader range of parliamentarians as possible. As I have stated before, to leave the European Union abruptly and in acrimony without a deal would jeopardise our chance to maintain a fair and frictionless relationship with the EU in the years ahead. We must remember that the substantive negotiations regarding our future trading and security relationship with the EU are yet to get underway.
My fervent hope for the year ahead is that once the dust has settled, we can try and move on from the division, rancour and uncertainty which has defined UK politics for the past two and half years or so. It is clear that the debate about Britain’s place in the world and the future direction of the country has stirred such strong and passionate feelings from all sides of the debate that some may remain unreconciled for some time. The significance of trying to heal these divisions cannot be understated. It is vital that politicians and public figures from across the party divide take the lead and attempt to bring the country together rather than whipping up further dogmatic or divisive fervour. Events outside of Parliament earlier in the year, together with the resignation of a number of MPs from the Labour Party citing anti-Semitism and bullying as reasons for their departure, demonstrates the importance of this all too well.
I abhor the manner in which much of the political debate has been conducted since June 2016. Everything is viewed through a prism of right/wrong or us/them, with virtually no scope for the grey areas of nuance and subtlety, let alone compromise, which has itself become a dirty word in politics. Much of this is amplified by the increasingly prevalence of social media and what I would term ‘fast’ online news outlets (quick to create content and bad for your health!).
This has all created a profound lack of trust in our institutions and, to an extent, the normalisation of abuse in our political discourse. This is something not unique to the UK – witness the similar trends in the US and in populist regimes in Europe whose leaders’ rhetoric of anger and victimisation have created a new form of political debate, which many of us have been unable to counter effectively.
At the very core of our Westminster system is that government controls the parliamentary agenda, a precedent that has stood for hundreds of years and has taken us through significant periods of tension and difficulty. This precedent is now being bypassed for short-term political advantage, at great risk to long-term political and constitutional stability. Now I appreciate that these activities are likely of little interest to those outside of the Westminster bubble, but the perception of the behaviour of the political class – what has been termed by populists as ‘the establishment’ – can only serve to heighten the disconnect and apathy that the wider public has with politics. At the time of the referendum millions (especially those outside of our capital city) felt they finally had their chance to have their voice heard having never engaged in the political process before.
The coming weeks and months are going to require calm heads in order that we navigate the greatest period of political uncertainty in a generation, as well as restoring faith in the strength of our institutions and constitution. No matter our political leanings or the manner in which we voted in the referendum, we all have a duty to come together in order to heal the anger and division that remain dangerously close to the surface for many. In the spirit of politics from yesteryear, this will require a degree of calm, reasoned compromise from us all.