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Paul Vallely: An election won’t clear up this mess

25 October 2019

There is one way to find out the will of the people, says Paul Vallely


The Prime Minister Boris leaves 10 Downing Street for his second PMQs since taking office. On Tuesday, MPs approved the second reading of the European Union Withdrawal Agreement but rejected the government’s timetable

The Prime Minister Boris leaves 10 Downing Street for his second PMQs since taking office. On Tuesday, MPs approved the second reading of the European...

THE prospect of Boris Johnson taking the UK out of the European Union by 31 October seems to recede with each passing day. An extension of our EU membership looms during which Parliament might go round and round in circles for another three months. Something needs to break the impasse.

It is a mark of the success of the Brexiteers in controlling the debate that the figure of 17.4 million has been burned into the political consciousness. How can MPs ignore the 17.4 million? We must “get on with Brexit” or else we disrespect the 17.4 million. The idea of a second referendum is an outrage to the 17.4 million.

It is worth questioning this recurring trope. If we are to bring the nation together after this drawn-out débâcle, we have also to remember the 16.1 million who hardly ever seem to get a mention these days. Their views and interests must be taken into account if we are to achieve any kind of national reconciliation.

Politicians need, first of all, to set aside the natural impatience of those Leave voters who are constantly telling pollsters that we need to “just get on with it”. Brexit is a rupture with the past which will have enormous economic, social, and political consequences for decades to come. It has to be done properly, not quickly.

The Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay, complained in the House of Commons this week that MPs had had more than 1000 days to do their endless talking, which was, in reality, prevarication. Yet Mr Barclay was urging haste at a time when the Government had not even published the full document on the proposed deal. He was inviting the House to buy a pig in a poke. It is eminently reasonable for MPs to demand the time to scrutinise, with all due diligence, the details of this latest Johnson deal.

The “just get on with it” brigade are fond of telling us that Brexit represents the will of the people. That was how the 17.4 million voted in 2016. But what did they vote for? Theresa May’s red lines? Theresa May’s deal? Boris Johnson’s No Deal? Boris Johnson’s current deal? There are substantial differences between these four, not to mention Canada-plus, Norway-minus, and all the other alternatives. How do we know which of these contradictory offerings represents the will of the people?

The UK’s politics are in a terrible muddle. There are Labour voters who cannot stand Jeremy Corbyn. Conservative voters who do not trust Mr Johnson. LibDem voters who balk at Jo Swinson’s anti-democratic revoke-without-a-referendum policy. Tories who like the idea of nationalising the railways. Labour voters who do not want to abolish independent schools. Amid such confusion and incoherence, it is breathtakingly naïve to suggest that a General Election will give a definitive solution to the Brexit conundrum.

If we want to respect the will of the people – and be given a clear indication of what that is – there is only one sure way of doing that. Once the deal is finalised we should have second referendum. Voters may still say Leave. But at least they would better understand what exactly it is that they are voting for.

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