I am currently in Florida for Easter week – where the sun beats down and the sky is blue. Sitting here, Britain and the political travails of the last three years seem a million miles away. Brexit does not dominate the airwaves here. In fact, it is barely mentioned. People in the US and around the world are getting on with their lives while the UK remains in political stasis. It’s a useful moment to be away from the introspection for a few days and to get some perspective.
For it’s clear, the world continues to make progress and develop with or without Brexit. Other nations are driving their own ambitions and seizing the benefits of investment, technological change and collaboration – and we simply must not fall behind. As the fifth largest economy in the world, we need to press back down on the accelerator and look to the next phase of our modernisation. Modernisation of our businesses, our systems and, yes, our political process.
We must continue at pace to embed digitalisation in all aspects of our economy and reap the huge benefits that will accrue from the industrial internet; we are barely in the foothills of that transformation. We must create modern systems for our economy – to maintain a strong City of London, investment in manufacturing and technology, a new transport and mobility system, a thriving services sector driving creativity, innovation and ideas, and a new clean energy system, holding our position a leader in decarbonisation and the tackling of global warming.
And to do this, above all we must now move on from Brexit and encourage high quality investment back into the UK. We must continue to be open and inspire an optimistic future. And for that we need a new narrative that shows that bright times are ahead and that the UK is involved and competing as it should.
So now that we have a six-month delay to Article 50, we must use that time wisely and efficiently to solve the issue and to lift the uncertainty that is surely stopping our nation from moving on.
Even though I voted remain, I have come to believe that we should honour the 2016 referendum and try to agree a soft Brexit that doesn’t harm the national interest too much. We have a withdrawal deal, which the Government has negotiated, but Parliament can’t find its way through to agreeing, as I thought they would have done by now. Ongoing talks between Labour and the Conservatives are unlikely to amount to much, such is the suspicion between them.
The solution therefore seems quite obvious.
We must take that negotiated deal out of the hands of the politicians for now and put it back to the people. A confirmatory referendum, which should be announced now and held before the summer, should either confirm the Withdrawal Agreement or confirm that the people have changed their minds and want to Remain. It is simply Withdraw versus Remain, i.e. Brexit or no Brexit. A vote held before the summer (and technically that should not be a problem) would allow required legislation to be passed across the summer and autumn to enable an exit if the country voted again to Withdraw.
The European Parliamentary Elections should not be a major impasse either. The Withdrawal Agreement sets in motion several more years of negotiations around our new relationship with the EU, including a transition period. If we happen to have several Members of the European Parliament for the first part of that time, so be it. And if the country happens to want to remain, then we have not disturbed the natural order of our current political situation. We should be proceeding with those elections with optimism and a sense of purpose.
And as we resolve the political impasse in our country over the early summer, I would urge our Prime Minister Theresa May to hold firm and show the extraordinary resolve that she has shown so far. We must not allow frustration to overcome us and to believe that we would be better off without her – because we simply would not be. A General Election, which would bring in a new but untested government at a moment of national uncertainty, would likely solve little and could be poor for the economy. But perhaps worst of all would be a quiet coup by the no deal Brexiteers, who would then likely dismiss any chance of a sensible Brexit with the EU and might well drive us to a no deal Brexit. The Government’s own advisers have warned that a no deal Brexit would likely to lead to a drop in GDP of 9.5%, something that would be disastrous for the economy, for jobs and for the very fabric of the UK.
Some will point at details, and some will not agree. Well, what has the last three years been all about? We would surely survive a soft Brexit, with a revised deal with the EU, and make the best of it. But our democracy would be stronger for another referendum. And as one looks ahead to a more inclusive future for the UK in the world, the simplicity and relief of a remain vote in a referendum is now all the more obvious as well. It avoids risks that lurk, plays to a democratic formula and would give us the fresh start that the people of the UK are realising they now yearn for. I’m voting for that and for an optimistic future.