When Theresa May stood on the steps of Downing Street on 21 May 2019, following 6 weeks of cross party talks, and outlined the details of 10 changes she was making to improve her Brexit deal, it should have been a watershed moment. Among the concessions included a bill on workers’ rights, guarantees on environmental standards, a vote on a customs arrangement, a role for parliament in future UK-EU trade talks, and even a vote on whether to put the deal back to a confirmatory public referendum.
Her aim wasn’t simply to appease her hard right Tory Brexiteers who were concerned about the Irish backstop, but to offer reassurances to Labour MPs who had rejected her initial offer the times because the Political Declaration on the Future Relationship had been so vague. Watching May, and then her statement in the chamber the next day when she described in more detail the contents of her Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB), it felt like we might finally be moving towards a Brexit deal we could all get behind.
I was wrong. Within hours my party had announced that we could not support the Bill. Some say that this decision was driven by colleagues who are campaigning for a second referendum and are opposed to supporting any deal. Others say that it was based on concerns about the weakness of May’s position. Whatever the reason, the fact is that it was the wrong call because it turbo-charged the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems, and set in motion a chain of events that placed the future of our country in the hands of 160,000 members of the Conservative Party.
Yet last week the parameters shifted again, and the Prime Minister is now left with three options: he can break the law by refusing to ask for an extension to Article 50, he can resign, or he can secure and pass a deal. Tabling a version of the WAB is by far the most likely option for securing a majority.
This is why on Wednesday Caroline Flint, Rory Stewart, Norman Lamb, Victoria Prentis and I launched our “MPs for a Deal” group, calling on the Prime Minister to recognise that the WAB is a strong basis for a Brexit deal.
We are not suggesting that the new deal should be a carbon copy of the WAB, but we are saying that it provides a solid and realistic basis on which to build, in order to reach a compromise that can pass in the Commons and avert a no-deal crash-out.
But neither are we giving carte blanche. Johnson should recognise that items like the proposed Worker’s Rights Bill, protecting environmental standards and giving parliament the power to shape future UK-EU trade negotiations are VITAL to gaining enough Labour support.
I hope the government and opposition front benches will support this compromise, because it’s time for common sense and pragmatism to prevail.
Further delay without a purpose will simply add to voter disillusion and anger. Johnson must therefore use the coming days and weeks to secure a deal that he can put to Parliament as soon as we re-convene on 14 October (or sooner if the Supreme Court upholds the decision by the Scottish courts today that prorogation is unlawful).
This would enable him to go to the EU summit on 18 October with a strong mandate, and the purpose of any extension would be crystal clear.
MPs For A Deal are convinced that the parliamentary support for a deal will grow. MPs want our departure resolved, and so do the British people. Our group will work together towards this outcome, in the hope that we can get back to the issues that really matter to people in our country; investing in the NHS, creating good jobs, cutting crime, boosting our children’s educational opportunities and bringing our deeply divided country back together.