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Brexit means… er, whatever!

United Kingdom
European Union

The politicians tasked to execute Brexit are clueless. Luckily, others are thinking about what to do next, Vanessa Baird writes.

Summer holidays are meant to be a break, a time for reflection. Especially when they are two months long.

But Britain’s politicians whose job it is now to put into practice the vote to leave the European Union, seem to be no wiser than they were before the summer recess.

As they came back to work this week, MPs were treated to David Davis, one of the three Brexiteers tasked to come up with a plan, explaining that ‘Brexit means leaving the European Union’.

Aha! That explained everything. Perhaps it was intended as a helpful expansion on Prime Minister Theresa May’s gnomic claim that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, which itself has become something of a running joke.

May herself offered a tad more info at the meeting of the G20 in China earlier this week when she let slip that she was not in favour of ‘an Australian-style points system’ on immigration.

Awkward that this was one of the few actual policies that the Leave side had to offer during their slogan-rich but substance-poor campaign leading up to the referendum. This week Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party’s former leader and a fan of the ‘Australian points system’ was left fuming.

While MPs in the main House of Commons chamber listened and hoped in vain that their 85 questions might produce a plan of some sort from Brexit frontman Davis, another, possibly more productive meeting was taking place in Westminster Hall.

This was a debate prompted by a petition, signed by some four million citizens, calling upon the government to ‘implement a rule that if the remain or leave vote is less than 60 per cent and the turn out less than 75 per cent there should be another referendum.’

The petition, ironically, was crafted by a Leave campaigner who had feared that his side was going to lose by a narrow margin on a vitally important matter, and it was taken up by Remainers immediately after the referendum.

Around 40 MPs attended the petition debate in Westminster Hall on Monday, which was introduced by Scottish Nationalist Party MP Ian Blackford. He pointed out, on numerous occasions, that Scotland had voted to remain in the EU and called for this to be ‘respected’ by English MPs.

The petition was, said Green MP Caroline Lucas, an ‘expression of anger at a referendum that has left this country very divided.’

But while several MPs expressed sympathy with the millions who signed it, none of the parliamentarians could support this specific petition. Former Tory Minister John Penrose said a re-run would corrode public trust.

Northern Ireland MP Ian Paisley put it more bluntly: ‘It’s like saying “give us your vote” – and then “damn you”.’

While Labour’s Chuka Umunna said: ‘In the end the Leave campaign won but it’s important that they are held to account for what happens now.’

Debating the petition, however, gave MPs a chance to present ideas of how to take things forward. Here, in this room at least, there seemed to be some capacity for forward thinking…

Caroline Lucas, Britain’s only Green MP, called for a debate in Parliament on ‘what kind of Brexit’ is to be negotiated with the EU. Only then should Article 50 be invoked and the terms be negotiated with the European Union. The result should then be put, in clear terms, to the people in another referendum. ‘We will need a second referendum on the terms of what Brexit means, because at the moment we have no idea what lies on the other side of the Brexit door,’ she explained.

Labour MP David Lammy said the public had been ‘lied’ to and a further vote on the Brexit deal, when it became clear, was the only way out of the ‘constitutional crisis’ caused by the referendum.

Several speakers cited a damning report on the conduct of the EU referendum from the Electoral Reform Society, which compared it unfavourably with that for Scottish Independence.

The report called for a new watchdog to call out false claims during referendum campaigns.

Some parliamentarians argued that there must be parliamentary debate before the ‘fuse’ of Article 50 is lit, triggering Britain’s irrevocable propulsion from the EU. Prime Minister May has said ‘no’ to this, but in October the UK High Court will rule on an action to prevent the government from invoking Article 50 without an Act of Parliament.

Other MPs looked ahead at the damage caused not only by Brexit but the uncertainty surrounding it.

What will happen to the North East, which was to receive large tranches of EU funding over the next five years, asked one? When would Parliament find time to do its job, as the unravelling of 40 years of laws and the creation of new ones takes place, asked another? This ‘gargantuan’ task could ‘occupy us for the next decade’.

Lucas expressed the Greens’ fear that, once out of the EU, the UK would try and compete by weakening environmental controls, workers’ rights, human rights and become an even bigger tax haven. She added: ‘We are asking the government right now to guarantee the rights of EU nationals and the right to remain in Britain’.

Xenophobia and racism have been a toxic result of the Brexit vote, said the SNP’s Peter Grant. In the past fortnight there have been two hate-crime attacks on Polish citizens in the Essex town of Harlow, one resulting in death.

But, Grant pointed out, the anti-immigrant sentiment has a longer history; it has gone unchallenged and been exploited by the two major parties, Labour and Conservative, for years. ‘Neither was prepared to stand up for immigration as a positive’, he said, while the Conservatives used the referendum ‘to fend off the right-wing challenge rather than face them down’.

The MPs charged to lead the country out of the European Union may have little to show for their summer break, but activists and research bodies have been busy.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has produced a report showing how people who felt marginalized voted Brexit.

Since the referendum, at least two campaigns popped up aimed at trying to restore truth in politics. 'Restore truthful politics' is pressuring to create an independent office to monitor political campaigns. While 'Brexit Justice' set up to prosecute dishonest politicians and bring integrity back into British politics’.

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