THE new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has come under pressure from church leaders to find a compromise solution to the Brexit deadlock, and to avoid a no-deal exit on 31 October.
Mr Johnson was announced as the winner of the Conservative leadership election on Tuesday morning.His leadership campaign centred on a “do or die” pledge to pull Britain out of the European Union, with or without a deal, by 31 October.
After her final Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Theresa May went to Buckingham Palace and tendered her resignation to the Queen. Shortly afterwards, Mr Johnson went to Buckingham Palace and was invited by the Queen to form a government.
In a speech delivered in Downing Street afterwards, he said that the UK would “come out of the EU on October 31st, no ifs or buts. . . I have every confidence that, in 99 days’ time, we will have cracked it.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote on Twitter on Wednesday afternoon: “We pray for wisdom and courage at this time of great challenge as we work to build a shared vision for the future of the country and all its people.”
A letter to Mr Johnson, issued by the Joint Public Issues Team on Wednesday, said that a no-deal Brexit would “put at risk the welfare and safety of the poorest communities in the UK”.
It was signed by leaders of seven denominations, including the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church, and the Church of Scotland.
The letter (full text below) says: “The impacts of a no-deal Brexit are at best highly uncertain, and at worst deeply worrying. Our view that it would put at risk the welfare and safety of the poorest communities in the UK is formed on the basis of the best available evidence, including our presence in local communities in every part of the UK . It is notable that assurances about our ability to cope with a no-deal Brexit, while frequent, are yet to be supported by substantial evidence. . .
“Your Government’s willingness to embrace a no-deal Brexit places upon it a responsibility to demonstrate that the most vulnerable in our communities, those locked in poverty, will not be harmed.
“We ask that your Government urgently publishes its current evidence on the impact of a no-deal Brexit on disadvantaged communities. We would also be pleased to welcome you to one of our many projects to hear from those who a no-deal Brexit may most impact.”
The Bishop Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, said on Monday that Mr Johnson “should focus on a cross-party way of working to achieve the very best outcome for this, the greatest peacetime challenge of our national life in living memory. This might also begin to bring the country back together. I don’t think he will achieve it, because hitherto I have seen no sign that he has any desire to even unite his own party, let alone Parliament. But I believe in the unexpected vicissitudes of grace, and would be delighted to be proved wrong.”
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said that Mr Johnson’s priority should be “honesty about the realities of government and the costs of doing what he promises”. But, he said, he did not expect that this would happen.
The Bishop-designate of Dover and current Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin, said that bringing “healing” should be the priority. “Anything else, including Brexit, is secondary. If the PM fails in achieving this, then we all fail.”
The Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, said that Mr Johnson’s priority should be the “forgotten million” UK citizens living in the EU. They were worried about residency issues, health care, pensions, and travelling. “A no-deal scenario would be disastrous for the UK, and I urge the new UK Prime Minister and Government to do everything they can to avoid it.”
The Conservative MP Sir Gary Streeter, who chairs Christians in Parliament, said that Mr Johnson “must focus on Brexit”. He risked imperilling trust in democracy if he did not manage to deliver an exit by 31 October, Sir Gary said.
The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Dame Caroline Spelman, a Conservative MP, called on Mr Johnson to foster “reconciliation”. She continued: “Our nation is so divided and desperately needs to be brought back together. We need to stop defining people as Leavers or Remainers and work together as one nation.”
The Team Rector of Boston, Lincolnshire, the Revd Aly Buxton, whose parish recorded the highest Leave vote in the referendum in 2016, said that that result should be respected, and that the UK should leave the EU. She hoped, however, that “the lives of the people of the nation can come first. . .
“I minister in a town where morale is low, along with great feelings of uncertainty about the future. Empty shops, low pay, and lack of facilities — with a large percentage of people not knowing if they are to stay or go, how this will happen, and in what time scale. Dear Mr Johnson, in all your decision making, please put the needs of the people of the UK first.”
The Vicar of two of the most deprived parishes in England (Holy Trinity and St Peter’s, Blackpool), the Revd Tracy Charnock, said that Mr Johnson must invest in poorer communities. “It’s a tall order,” she said, “[but] I’d love to believe there will be advances. I often find the needs and hopes of our northern towns are not on the radar for those in Westminster.”
The Rector of St Bartholomew the Great, in central London, the Revd Marcus Walker, a member of the Conservative Party, said that the priority for Mr Johnson should be not Brexit, or anything else, but establishing a stable majority for his government in Parliament. “At the moment, all government is paralysed, and nothing — including, but not limited to, Brexit — can be done.”
The Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishops’ Council, the Revd Dr Malcolm Brown, said that Mr Johnson’s first act should be to reappoint his predecessor’s special adviser for faith communities, Jonathan Hellewell.
This would show that his government “will take the role of religious communities seriously in a period when their role in community stability and reconciliation will be vital”, Dr Brown said.
Text of the letter issued by the Joint Public Issues Team:
Dear Mr Johnson
As Churches, we have a particular care and concern for the people in our society who are locked in poverty. Around the country, local churches are helping families to cope with the rising tide of poverty. Projects range from simple coffee mornings run by a few volunteers, to large projects such as foodbanks, homeless support, employment advice and debt counselling.
With this in mind, we are compelled to write expressing our urgent concern about your position that leaving the European Union without a deal is acceptable. Advice and data from multiple reputable sources, including the UK Government, indicate that failing to agree a deal will hit those held back by poverty very hard indeed.
The UK imports 10,000 shipping containers of food from the EU each day. These containers are part of long and complex integrated supply chains. Even minor disruptions to this chain have in the past rapidly had serious consequences. A no-deal Brexit will cause a huge and potentially crippling disruption. Government and many other reputable sources highlight the immediate risk of shortages and price rises. Over the longer term they point to the costs of new and less fluid supply chains increasing food bills for families.
Last year our partner, Trussell Trust, which represents around half of the UK’s foodbanks, gave out a record-breaking 1.6 million 3-day supplies of food. At a time when increasing numbers of families have difficulties putting enough food on the table, we believe it is irresponsible to consider a course of action that is expected to make that situation worse.
It is also unclear how a wide range of other vital products and services will continue to be delivered in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Government, industry and charity sources indicate potential problems with both energy and medical supplies.
The UK Government’s no-deal planning documents highlight that many of the difficulties caused by a no-deal Brexit can only be tackled in collaboration with the EU. The Cabinet Office states that for many issues we must seek accommodations with the EU which are “not within the UK’s gift to unilaterally control or mitigate”. In essence, the Government will be relying on the hope that our former EU partners are willing to cooperate even without an agreement – a huge gamble to take with the basic needs of our poorest citizens and communities.
The impacts of a no-deal Brexit are at best highly uncertain, and at worst deeply worrying. Our view that it would put at risk the welfare and safety of the poorest communities in the UK is formed on the basis of the best available evidence, including our presence in local communities in every part of the UK . It is notable that assurances about our ability to cope with a no-deal Brexit, while frequent, are yet to be supported by substantial evidence.
Evidence-free dismissals of well-founded concerns are at this stage both dangerous and inappropriate. Your Government’s willingness to embrace a no-deal Brexit places upon it a responsibility to demonstrate that the most vulnerable in our communities, those locked in poverty, will not be harmed.
We ask that your Government urgently publishes its current evidence on the impact of a no-deal Brexit on disadvantaged communities. We would also be pleased to welcome you to one of our many projects to hear from those who a no-deal Brexit may most impact.
Rather than being absent from the debate, this evidence and these communities should be at the heart of our debates around Brexit.
We assure you of our prayers as you take up this challenging new role.
Revd Nigel Uden, Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church
Mr Derek Estill, Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church
Professor Clive Marsh, Vice-President of the Methodist Conference
Revd Dr Barbara Glasson, President of the Methodist Conference
Revd Dr Richard Frazer, Convenor of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland
Rev Lynn Green, General Secretary, Baptist Union of Great Britain
Rev Alan Donaldson, General Director, Baptist Union of Scotland
Parchedig/Reverend Judith Morris, Ysgrifennydd Cyffredinol/General Secretary, Undeb Bedyddwyr Cymru/Baptist Union of Wales
Most Revd Mark Strange, Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church
Commissioner Anthony Cotterill, Territorial Commander, The Salvation Army
Paul Parker, Recording Clerk for Quakers in Britain