As the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament sets out, all MPs have a duty to act in the interests of the nation as a whole, with a special duty to our constituents, and this is a responsibility I take extremely seriously.
I therefore campaigned for the UK to remain a member of the European Union in the run-up to the referendum in June 2016, because I firmly believed this was in the best interests of Newcastle, the wider North East and those of the rest of our country.
We all know the national result saw 52% backing our departure from the EU, with 48% supporting continued membership. The result in Newcastle was reversed but even tighter – with 50.7% backing a ‘remain’ vote, and 49.3% taking the opposite view. There is no figure for how Newcastle North voted as a constituency, despite some claims to the contrary.
There have of course been serious concerns about the pledges that were made to voters and the overall conduct of the 2016 referendum (which I have raised with Ministers and law enforcement agencies). However, I’ve always made clear to constituents that I respect the decision that each of my constituents made, do not claim to know why every individual decided to vote the way they did, but that I am sure each will have had genuine reasons for doing so.
What is evident from my extensive discussions with local residents and businesses – and the enormous volume of correspondence I’ve received (I‘ve had more emails, letters and phone calls, from more people, on this issue than any other since I was first elected in 2010) – is that constituents continue to feel very strongly about Brexit, and how this process should play out.
So, as Newcastle North’s democratically-elected representative in Parliament, I’ve worked very hard since the referendum to represent local concerns; to scrutinise the Government’s approach to this hugely important issue; to hold Ministers to account for decisions that will have an impact on our community for decades to come; and to try to ensure we get the best possible outcome from this entire process for our area. You can read more about just some of this work here.
And now – almost 30 months on from that referendum, and some 20 months since the Prime Minister triggered the Article 50 process – we finally have a Withdrawal Agreement on which a ‘meaningful vote’ will be held in Parliament, despite Theresa May’s previous attempts to block this from happening. This will take place on 11th December, and I continue to be inundated with correspondence from constituents asking me to take a variety of different positions next month.
Some local residents have asked me to vote against the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement, on the grounds that it represents a ‘betrayal’ of the referendum result and a no deal Brexit would therefore be the preferable outcome to this process.
I know that many who share this perspective believe the UK could survive exiting from the EU in this chaotic way. However, the analyses published by the Government and Bank of England this week, which only serve to back up all the evidence I have heard during hours of Treasury Select Committee hearings, highlight just what no deal would mean for the UK in the short, medium and long-term – with the North East being hardest hit economically by this scenario with around 60% of our region’s exports currently going to the EU (the highest proportion of any part of the country).
The potentially dire impact of no deal on almost every aspect of our daily lives – from access to medicines and food, to aviation, manufacturing and everything else in between – has been extensively reported, and I am therefore not clear how any responsible Member of Parliament could consider a no deal Brexit to be an option. I also think we should have higher ambitions for our country and future generations than being able to ‘survive’ the next few years, if not decades to come.
I recognise that the economy was not the driving factor behind many people’s referendum vote in 2016 – but all the Parliamentary sovereignty in the world won’t make up for the impact of rising unemployment, reduced living standards and lost opportunities, not least in a region like the North East which has been thrown on the economic scrapheap too many times before.
A small number of constituents have asked me to vote in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement on the basis that this is the best offer available to us after the Prime Minister’s efforts, and they are quite understandably concerned about the prospect of crashing out of the EU without a deal given Theresa May’s insistence that these are the only two options now before us.
I fully acknowledge the Prime Minister has had an impossible task in trying to square the circle drawn for her by the Leave campaign – and she has indeed been poorly served by Ministers responsible for negotiating on behalf of our country, who walked away once it became obvious the unicorn version of Brexit they had pledged was undeliverable.
However, that is not a reason to continue ploughing on regardless given what is at stake and – alongside perhaps a majority of MPs – I simply do not accept we now face a binary choice between the Prime Minister’s deal and no deal at all.
That is also the view of the overwhelming majority of the large number of constituents contacting me ahead of 11th December, who have asked me to vote against the Withdrawal Agreement when it comes before Parliament before working to ensure the final decision on how we then proceed as a country is put back to the British public via a People’s Vote.
And that is the approach I intend to take.
I cannot support the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement because it is a fudge, and only serves to emphasise that negotiating an arrangement better than (or equivalent to) the one we already have, as members of the European Union, just cannot be done.
By the Chancellor’s own admission, this agreement will leave us poorer as a country (as would any form of Brexit), which means this must be the only Government in living memory to actively pursue a policy it knows will damage the economy of its country.
There will be no ‘Brexit dividend’ and therefore additional funding for our public services. Meanwhile, we’ll be subject to EU rules with no say over how they are made in future – so much for ‘taking back control’.
The Withdrawal Agreement also kicks key issues, such as how we avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, and future fisheries policy, into the long grass, whilst failing to protect employment rights, consumer protections or environmental standards.
It could lead to a weakening of our security involvement and gives no guarantee that the UK will remain part of common EU arrangements, such as the European Arrest Warrant.
And – crucially for thousands of businesses in the North East, and the hundreds of thousands of good, skilled jobs they provide – it offers absolutely no certainty about our future relationship with the EU, nor the frictionless trade and easy access to European markets our manufacturing and services sectors require and currently enjoy through the Customs Union and Single Market.
MPs are therefore being asked by the Prime Minister to vote on 11th December for a ‘blindfold Brexit’ – pressing ahead with the UK’s departure from the EU on 29th March 2019, whilst having no real idea what lies beyond – despite repeated pledges we would have this information by now. That cannot be in the best interests of our country as a whole, nor of my constituents in Newcastle North.
And, because there is clearly no majority in Parliament for either the Prime Minister’s deal, nor for a no deal outcome, I continue to firmly believe that the most constructive, democratic and realistic way forward out of this deadlock is to put the issue back to the British public via a People’s Vote.
I know that many people are fed up of hearing about Brexit – and I too am angry that we have spent almost 30 months not properly focussing on the myriad of other issues desperately requiring our attention, whether the NHS, schools, transport, rising food bank use, social care or climate change, particularly when the Prime Minister’s deal is all we have to show for it.
But our impending departure from the EU is the single biggest issue facing our country since the Second World War, and it is impossible to overstate how important it is we get this right.
This is categorically not about trying to re-run the 2016 referendum, but about asking people to confirm – now that a Brexit deal is actually on the table – whether this is what they want for our country, our economy and their families. Or – now we know what is achievable – whether remaining in the EU is the country’s preferred option.
A healthy democracy is an ongoing process, not a moment frozen in time.