It's a commonplace for me, as an MP who continues to believe in the value of a People’s Vote on Brexit, that I am continually bombarded by social media messages assuring me that there is no demand for one and that leaving the EU is the settled will of the British people, who are now, I am told, furious that Brexit has not been delivered and who are as a consequence losing all faith in our democratic processes. This is often accompanied by abuse. It is also a narrative which is taken up with vehemence by some sections of the print media.
Unlike his predecessor, Theresa May, who was a pillar of rectitude in the face of challenges, we also now have a Prime Minister who encourages, develops and feeds off these trends. Number 10 has always been a place of spin but this is now replaced by a propaganda machine designed to achieve the single end of Brexit by October 31 and willing to tell outright lies and spread disinformation in order to achieve it. It helps generate a climate of uncertainty and noisy crisis that itself is then used to make people want the whole thing to be brought to an end quickly, regardless of the consequences.
So it was both refreshing and heartening to find myself on Saturday afternoon on a platform in Parliament Square looking out over a sea of people whose presence refutes the arguments of my angry emailers. Around one million peaceful demonstrators asserted their right to argue for a more sensible outcome to this long debate, which has sapped so much of our energy over the last three years, and requested an opportunity to have the choices available put to a final decision of the electorate.
This would both seek to respect the outcome of the 2016 referendum and add the opportunity for further consideration, which the passage of time can now give us. It is hard to understand why those who so vehemently promote leaving the EU, and are convinced an overwhelming majority of the electorate now agree with them, should oppose it.
One reason for this could perhaps have been found earlier the same day in the Chamber of the House of Commons. The PM made a statement on the deal he has negotiated for leaving the EU, and asked the Commons to approve it, even though the text of this treaty of major constitutional significance had only been made available a short time before.
With all the focus on MPs passing, in response to this, the Letwin amendment — which was aimed at stopping the risk of no deal on October 31 — it is easy to lose sight of the implications of this newly negotiated deal. By replacing the agreement made by Mrs May — which aimed to maintain a close alignment with EU rules — with a blueprint for a much looser relationship, it makes the chances of any future negotiation for a free trade agreement much more difficult. Far from the troubles of Brexit being about to finish, they are only just starting.
By June next year the Government will have to decide whether or not to ask to extend the transition period — the period of complete subordination to the EU due to last until the end of 2020 — in order to try and get that free trade agreement. Any extension will be resisted by hard Brexiteer Conservatives. There is therefore a real risk that in voting this deal through we are merely postponing no deal, with the risks to our economy, security and wellbeing that flow from it.
The proposals for Northern Ireland also show the extent to which Brexit has now being turned into an English nationalist project. It may leave Northern Ireland with a foot still in the EU, which is economically advantageous — but if there is the regulatory divergence the Government wants in the longer term, then Northern Ireland will be effectively carved out of the UK’s economic zone. It will remain subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice which is routinely denounced by Brexiteers.
It is small wonder that the DUP is angry, particularly as it is clear the Prime Minister has betrayed earlier promises he made to the party on this. The Scottish SNP government, in contrast, will argue for the right to a similar deal for Scotland and use it to fuel demand for independence. As a Unionist as well as a Conservative I look on this with the greatest concern. We now run an even greater risk than before of our country breaking up.
The extent of the risks goes a long way, therefore, to explain the reluctance of the promoters of Leave to consider a referendum. In any campaign those risks will be fully scrutinised and explored. At present they are being brushed under the carpet in the rush to leave the EU.
For many Conservative MPs who have rebelled over Brexit, the dilemma could not be greater. Most want to support their party and heal the divisions with colleagues and constituency party members. But how can this be reconciled with ignoring the risks that our country now faces? So the coming few weeks are going to be critical and the outcome uncertain. It makes the arguments being put forward by the crowd of protesters on Saturday for a People’s Vote all the more compelling. We ought to listen to them.
Dominic Grieve is the MP for Beaconsfield and a former attorney general