The defining issue for Britain now and in the next few years is Brexit. The decision to leave the European Union has been taken. That is not in any doubt. What is more uncertain is the manner in which we leave and the terms of the deal.
It reminds me of a situation where a couple have decided to separate and divorce. That decision is not going to change, but who gets custody of the CDs and the furniture and what happens in terms of selling the house obviously takes some negotiation, discussion and agreement before it eventually happens. It’s a similar thing for Brexit, but with profound consequences for the shape and prosperity of our future economy. I think the Government has to be determined to ensure that good jobs in this region and elsewhere are not going to drift away from this country because of a poor negotiation.
That’s why I think it is important that the Government publishes a plan, showing the main and broad positions it will take on serious matters like freedom of movement of people and British membership of the Single Market. The Government doesn’t have to give a firm, definitive and detailed plan – that would definitely undermine its hand in negotiations – but it should give Parliament and the country an idea as to what its main points of principles are. To go back to that divorce, it’s like having an agreement which states that you want to keep the CDs but you are happy to negotiate about the posh dinner set if your soon-to-be ex partner wants to keep the living room furniture.
It’s not outrageous that Parliament challenges and scrutinises the Government on this stance. We are not a dictatorship. The Brexit referendum meant many things to many people, but it seems to me that one of the key themes was a wish for us to “take our country back”. That means clearing up without any shadow of a doubt that Parliament is the defining sovereign body in this country. It therefore seems odd when the Government doesn’t want Parliament to have a say. Sensitive matters of national security and challenges regarding the Government’s broad wartime strategy and evaluation of individual battles and theatres of war were debated in Parliament in the Second World War. I don’t think anybody questioned the overall objective to defeat Hitler’s Nazi Germany, but it seemed appropriate to question the Government in the House of Commons. As a result of this scrutiny, Neville Chamberlain was replaced by Winston Churchill as Prime Minister in 1940, and Churchill himself faced a couple of votes of no confidence in 1942 after disappointments in terms of the Japanese assault and the fall of Singapore, which boosted the Nazi cause. Nobody in their right mind would have suggested that Churchill should have disclosed detailed assessments of battle tactics and strategic considerations. Parliament did however wish to be reassured that a plan was in place. If anything, that challenge and scrutiny honed Churchill’s strategy still further. So should it be with Theresa May and Brexit.
At the time of writing this, there will be a vote on whether the Government should come forward with a plan for Brexit to Parliament. I will be very clear. I will not vote against triggering Article 50 when the Government brings that forward. I will vote for Labour’s motion tonight on having a plan in place. I will also vote for the Government’s amendment to the motion, which states that the House of Commons recognises the wishes of the people and calls upon the Government to trigger Article 50 by 31 March 2017. I think this is a sensible position which highlights the need for scrutiny but doesn’t challenge in any way the result of the referendum.