The last week of March saw Parliament begin the novel process of indicative voting; the idea being that the House would signal its majority support for one from a choice of eight possible options that might see us break the current Brexit deadlock.
While the Cabinet abstained, the rest of the Party was free to vote in accordance with their personal views. Though my preference has always been to pass the Prime Minister's current deal, of the choices on offer I supported the revocation of Article 50 and Ken Clarke’s proposal for a customs union to be negotiated alongside the current Withdrawal Agreement.
In these circumstances of utter paralysis, I backed revoking Article 50 as a means of allowing us the time come to an agreed way forward that enjoys Parliamentary support, before retirggering it and engaging once again with the European Commission. Naturally, I appreciate how this might seem to those wary of Brexit being delayed indefinitely, but I want to stress that this would only ever be a short-term revocation. Whilst not firmly committing to supporting this course of action, I believe it to be a more desirable outcome than a chaotic No Deal, a second referendum or a general election, which would achieve little given how internally divided the two main parties are on this issue.
As regards a customs union, I acknowledge that I was elected on a manifesto which supported leaving this part of the EU network. However, the Party failed to win an overall majority in 2017 and has had to sign up to a supply and confidence arrangement with the DUP, whose overriding concern is to maintain the sanctity of the UK. It is now, as I understand it, the DUP’s position that the best way of mitigating the Irish backstop is, in principle, to sign up to a customs union. It was with this in mind that during the indicative vote process I expressed lukewarm support for exploring the possibility of a compromise around future customs union membership in order to get the Withdrawal Agreement over the line.
Indicative voting continued on Monday with the options whittled down to four, and I, again, reaffirmed my position by voting for the revocation of Article 50 and the negotiation of a customs union alongside our exit deal. As yet, this process has produced no majority for any of the possible ways through the impasse.
On Tuesday evening, with both Parliament and the Government in continued paralysis as the clock ticks towards our new April 12 departure date, the Prime Minister took the decision to reach out to the Leader of the Opposition to discuss how both sides could work towards a deal acceptable to the House. This move, I must confess, came as a surprise; though, given the Parliamentary arithmetic, I understand the Prime Minister’s urge to find solutions in unusual places, were all else has so far failed. I have long felt that the development of a broad cross-party consensus would be vital to delivering a form of Brexit that has the majority support of the House, and this latest development is, in my view, a practical response to events.
It is, nevertheless, a matter of the greatest regret that politicians from all side of the House have failed to compromise. So much energy has been expended for seemingly so little gain, and I share many of the frustrations that have been expressed to me in the thousands of pieces of correspondence I have received since the referendum. The unedifying spectacle of a fractious, disunited Parliament has been a source of great embarrassment for MPs like myself who have steadfastly sought to deliver on the result of the referendum at every opportunity. To date, I have supported the Withdrawal Agreement three times, which in its first two incarnations would have successfully ensured that the UK would have left the EU on 29 March as promised in 2017. Unfortunately, the actions of ultras, both Leavers and Remainers, has prevented us from achieving this. With neither side of this debate ever able to achieve their perfect outcome, seeking compromise amidst the division was always going to be necessary and it is regrettable that some of my Ministerial colleagues’ understanding of “collective responsibility” is more flexible than mine.
Though I continue to loyally support the Government and the Withdrawal Agreement, you will appreciate that the situation remains fluid, and it is impossible to predict what might emerge as a possible route through the current logjam. What is sure is that the silent majority in Government and I remain absolutely determined to seeing this process through and delivering on the 2016 referendum result at the earliest possible moment.