‘Remainers and Brexiteers agree: May’s plan will make UK vassal state’

It was hard not to admire Theresa May as she stood in the Commons, countering blow after blow. Picture: PA
It was hard not to admire Theresa May as she stood in the Commons, countering blow after blow. Picture: PA
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Theresa May’s Brexit plan has united the Leave and Remain camps in opposition and the only option left is a People’s Vote, writes Christine Jardine.

What used to be the occasional email from a constituent frustrated at the lack of progress over our future relationship with the EU became a torrent this past week.

Each evening after a round of EU-related discussions, telephone calls and media appearances, I opened my inbox to a series of identical messages: “Brexit is a mess, can we have a People’s Vote please to settle it?”

There is also an ever-growing mountain of postcards in both my Westminster and Edinburgh offices making the same plea.

I know many of you will say: “Oh, she’s a Lib Dem, she’s been harping on about a final vote for two years.”

You’d be right. I have. The day after the referendum in June 2016, my party said that any proposed deal should go to the people so we can all have the final say.

I make no apology for that. If anything, I am now even more certain that it is what we all deserve.

Because now, amid the unprecedented turmoil at Westminster, and a governing party in near meltdown while failing to recognise reality or be honest with the people about it, the situation we predicted has come all too starkly true.

There is no deal that we can negotiate that is as good as the one we have as members of the EU. Granted it’s not perfect, but at least as members we are at the table when the rules are made. We can reform them.

The deal we are currently being sold by the Tories – or at least some of them – would leave us as a vassal state. Rule takers, not rule makers.

And if you think that sounds just a fraction similar to what the Brexiteers are saying? You’d be right. Again.

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That is one of the other remarkable things about this past week. Mrs May has managed to unite both Remainers and Brexiteers in parliament, and across the country, in opposition to her vision.

An opinion poll on the day she revealed her now widely discredited proposals and outlined three options – her deal, no deal or no Brexit. Fifty-four per cent of people asked said: “No Brexit please.” Only 14 per cent actually supported the Prime Minister’s deal.

Please don’t get me wrong. None of this means I will shortly be having dinner with Jacob Rees-Mogg to discuss a new-found understanding or joint approach to Brexit. Far from it.

But it does illustrate the extent of dissatisfaction with what Mrs May’s team has cobbled together.

There was general agreement on the opposition benches on Thursday that none of us, even those whose experience stretches back decades, had ever witnessed anything like the spectacle that unfolded before us that day.

A Prime Minister, surrounded by Cabinet Ministers, many of whose loyalty was at best questionable, making a statement which sounded more like an appeal to her own disaffected back benches than an update to the house.

An atmosphere of curiosity and surprise then became incredulity when it took an hour for anyone from those same government benches to express anything even resembling support for their own Prime Minister.

This was surely unprecedented. A government at war with itself. In public. In the chamber of the House of Commons.

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It’s one of those fantastic features of our oft-beleaguered parliamentary system that the leader of the government has to stand in front of MPs of all parties and justify their position.

On this occasion, it was three hours of interrogation, criticism and the odd smattering of sympathy.

It was hard to imagine any US, French or most certainly Russian President willingly going through such a solitary, personal and intense scrutiny. And do it both willingly and regularly.

As she countered blow after blow, and then an open challenge from Brexiteer-in-chief Rees-Mogg, I found it impossible not to have a grudging admiration for Theresa May’s strength of character. I may never have agreed with her position, but I admire her commitment to what she believes is right.

Later that same evening I addressed a rapidly assembled rally of several hundred people drawn to Parliament Square by the desire to simply articulate their equally firmly held belief that they want an out from this increasing chaos.

And, perhaps for the first time, I felt a real and palpable shift in opinion, a general momentum across parliament and in all parties, behind the conviction that the people have to be given the final say.

Surely we have moved too far from the original premise – seen too many broken promises, suffered through too many failed negotiations and come to too many realisations that the Government simply cannot deliver – for there to be any other way.

So what happens now? Will parliament be able to persuade the Government, whoever might be leading by the time we vote, to listen to the public demand for something better.

Those of us who will try to do precisely that have long ago given up on predicting what ridiculous twist this particular tale will take.

One colleague sums it up perfectly when he says: “Anyone who tells you that they know what will happen next is either a fool, or a liar, or both.” I have to agree with him.