Brexit decision time
No apologies for mentioning Brexit this month. After two and a half years we are at the endgame, or at least the beginning of the endgame. And it will be a process that affects the lives of everyone for decades to come.
Hammersmith residents have left me in no doubt as to their views. Since Theresa May announced her ‘deal’ three weeks ago, I have had hundreds of emails and letters: 5% support the May deal, 2.5% support leaving with no deal and an extraordinary 92.5% support a People’s Vote on whether the status quo is better than either option.
This mirrors the views expressed in over 3,000 emails I have received since the Referendum, where 96% back Remain and 4% Leave. This is significantly different from the 70/30 split in the vote itself in Hammersmith, and perhaps it does underestimate the Leave vote, but at the Christmas Market in King Street last weekend, a good cross-section of west London shoppers responded to the European Movement poll with an overwhelming preference for a People’s Vote.
Bizarrely, the local Conservatives chose this week to announce that “a vast majority” of them “favour a no deal Brexit.”
Anyway, here is what I think should happen and what options the upcoming votes in Parliament will allow.
I am firmly signed up to support a People’s Vote with the option of remaining in the EU. Whether the alternative is the May deal or no deal (or both), I think there is nothing undemocratic or divisive about asking the electorate on this fundamental and complex issue which path they want to go down. Although a further referendum campaign will be bruising, I think the consequences of leaving are so much clearer and starker now that it is reasonable to pose the question, ‘are you happy to go ahead with Brexit on these terms’?
I hope and expect the answer by a clear margin will be to remain in the EU, but there is obviously a possibility of another close result or a more emphatic majority for Leave. There are all sorts of reasons for believing Remain will do better: more young people eligible to vote, less complacency leading to higher turnouts in Remain areas, or people realising they were duped by the promises of £350 million a week for the NHS.
But the game changer has been the admission by everyone, including the Prime Minister and Chancellor, that leaving the EU will damage our economy and leave each of us worse off in years to come than if we had stayed in.
There are a few people, like Farage, who believe lower growth, higher unemployment and worse living standards are a price worth paying for being outside the EU, but not 52%.
The belated realisation that asking people who have gone through a decade of austerity to limit their chances of a prosperous future is not good politics has produced a last minute push in the parts of the Conservative Party for a ‘Norway’ or ‘Norway plus’ Brexit, in other words economic alignment with the EU while still leaving the organisation.
Leaving aside these are the same people who proposed this as a temporary option prior to a hard Brexit until a few weeks ago, there are two good reasons I won’t back this over staying in.
Firstly, I think the EU is a good thing politically as well as economically. It has been a major force for bringing democracy to eastern and southern Europe, it has a lot of soft power that can be a force for good in the wider world and it offers safety in numbers in an age where the demagogues are back.
But even if you reject this view, no one denies that staying in the single market and customs unions, following the rules of the EU without having a say in what those rules are, weakens our influence even while protecting our trading relations.
Which brings us to the May ‘deal’. It is not a deal of course. There is a legal agreement to get us out of the EU and a load of waffle about how we will all still be friends thereafter. You have to admire the intricacies of the Withdrawal Agreement, a tribute to the civil servants who set about achieving an impossible task: how do you produce an outcome that doesn’t wreck the economy from a proposal that does exactly that.
Mrs May is selling her agreement as one that doesn’t do as much economic damage as other options, that may not cause disorder in Ireland, that will stop free movement but only by treating EU and UK citizens as second class when they travel to study, to work or to live. What a reductive, insular, negative plan for our country.
I don’t buy the narrative that the Prime Minister is doing all this and staying on in the national interest. There is no majority in Parliament for no deal, for her deal, for a General Election or – at present – for a People’s Vote.
There could have been a majority for a soft Brexit. She chose to ignore that and confect the current plan. Why? Because a soft Brexit would have split the Tory Party. She has tried to put Party before country and ended up pleasing no one. The opposition parties and some centrist Conservatives won’t back a plan that makes us poorer and the Moggites want all ties to the EU cut.
What will happen when the House of Commons votes on 11 December? Thus far we are told a series of amendments will be selected by the Speaker and each voted on to reject or modify the May proposal. We don’t know yet what they all might be but here are some reasonable bets.
• the Labour amendment which rejects the May deal and no deal and calls for other options will almost certainly be called
• an amendment by select committee chairs which goes further in taking no deal off the table entirely until further outcomes have been explored
• an amendment calling for a People’s Vote
This is where it gets technical. Only two outcomes will have the force of law: May’s deal or no deal if May’s deal is voted down. Any other option requires yet unplanned legislation to give it effect. All the Commons votes can do is let the Government know what Parliament is thinking. For this reason the hard Brexiters think they just have to vote down May and wait for March 29th – and she relies on this threat to persuade wavering MPs to back her poor deal.
But there is a lot of constitutional water to pass under the bridge before March. Parliament is sovereign (despite what the Brexiters told us) and any Government that loses its support can’t last long. Indeed May herself may depart sooner rather than later if her deal is badly defeated. Although it is more difficult to achieve vote of no confidence in the Government since the Fixed Term Parliament Act, eventually the conflict between legislature and executive must lead to a General Election.
The most likely outcome from 11 December is a firm rejection of May’s deal and no deal but no clear majority for any other option. Labour has inevitably said it will then move a vote of no confidence in the Government. Sadly this is likely to fail, with the Brexiters and DUP back on board for fear of their own futures. There may be an attempt to cobble together a different deal for a possible second vote in January, but the EU has signalled that it is not in a position to reopen negotiations.
I think at this point there could be gravitation towards a People’s Vote as the only way out of an impasse. That requires a change of policy by Labour, which I think is likely, and a significant number of Tory MPs wiling to defy their whip, which is less so. If this happens it will be a remarkable achievement, in large part due to the strategy Keir Starmer has pursued for the past year in moving the majority of opinion in the Commons away from the cliff edge by reasoned argument rather than striking positions.
But there are so many traps along the way that nothing is certain at this point. While I am a little more hopeful than in the summer, the volatility of the situation means May’s collapse, or her Government’s, could still precede any decision on Brexit. We will just have to keep watching for the next episode.
Meanwhile, in the NHS
Of course, Brexit will take its toll in the NHS too. From the future of 10% of staff in London who are EU nationals to restrictions on medicines and research, there are severe risks. But our local NHS is undergoing trials of its own that have nothing to do with Brexit.
With cuts of £20 million to make before March and £27 million next year, services are under unprecedented strain. The Pembridge Palliative Care Unit has closed ‘temporarily’ but there are real fears it may never reopen.
Royal Brompton Hospital wishes to leave Chelsea and move to St Thomas’ meaning decades of world class heart and lung specialist knowledge will be lost. Imperial and Chelsea & Westminster are belatedly trying to put forward an alternative plan to move services to Hammersmith and C&W.
And the Charing Cross saga continues. We proudly celebrated the Hospital’s 200th anniversary last month and work to enlarge the A&E continues to meet rising demand. But the Government still says it is marked for demolition, just as soon as those pesky patients stop turning up.
Post Office protests
I have made the mistake of believing what the Post office – a once trusted brand – have been telling me. But the three branch offices they closed ‘temporarily’ (that word again) remain shut and the main Shepherds Bush office we were told just last year would stay a Crown Office even after it moved to WHSmith’s in Westfield is now to become a franchised part of WHSmith along with 73 others around the country.
This is bad for the staff as well as customers and looks like being another step towards full privatisation. I am meeting staff and unions and raising in Parliament and with the Minister.
Some Hammersmith greats
Did you know the first Sikh temple (Gurdwara) in the UK is here? I attended the 110th anniversary party for the Khalsa Jatha in Queensdale Crescent recently. Sikh custom means anyone is welcome and well fed and the newly-refurbished building is delightful.
Also feeding many thousands in need is the H&F foodbank – now the busiest in London. I helped with the pre-Xmas collection last weekend at Brook Green Tesco. Daphine and Tim Aiken and the hundreds of volunteers do a fantastic job of supplying food from three sites in the borough, 100,000 meals in the last year. But it is tragic that foodbanks are now a part of daily life for so many fellow citizens.
The ten-year battle to save the West Ken and Gibbs Green estates from demolition has entered a new phase with the Mayor of London giving full backing to residents and the developer who bought their homes for a pittance from the last Tory council in H&F on the ropes. To press home the advantage, I accompanied a group of the 2000 estate residents on visits to the developers. The wonderful story of our day out is told here.
Recently I met an inspiring local resident, Bill Scanlon. His story of a fall from a senior job in the film industry to alcoholism and homelessness and how he pulled his life around is gripping. You can read it here and find out how Bill is helping others by following him on Twitter @scanlondon.
Sad news to end on: Debbie Domb, one of the leading campaigners for disability rights died this week at the age of 60. Debbie was a constant advocate for disabled people and fought against cuts in support and services. She had a profound effect on the way disabled people are treated in Hammersmith and will be missed by everyone who met her. Council leader Stephen Cowan paid a special tribute to the way she has influenced public life here.