My Orcadian Column 27/9/18

Orcadian 27/09/18

OK, fair warning.  Having held off as long as I can, recent events make it impossible for me to ignore developments in the slow moving train wreck that is Brexit.

For those of you who have resisted the urge to turn immediately to the sports pages at the mere mention of Brexit, thanks for sticking with me. Let me say, though, that I understand why some readers may have chosen to seek solace in reports of Orkney’s latest sporting achievements.

A far cry, I fear, from the performance on the European stage of our beleaguered Prime Minister, who returned from the European Summit in Salzburg last week with an outcome that united diehard Brexiteers and resolute Remainers in condemnation. “The hills are alive with the sound of shambles” cried one newspaper, capturing the situation perfectly.

Bizarrely, Theresa May appeared taken aback by the response she received from fellow EU leaders. There were even dark mutterings of ‘an ambush’. Yet all the signals from the EU side over the past year suggested that Mrs May’s so-called “Chequers Plan” was never likely to find favour in Salzburg.

From the outset, this has not been a negotiation of equals given the disparity between the two sides in terms of size, wealth and power.  Moreover, and surely to the surprise of no-one, the EU has sought to pursue its ‘red lines’ in those negotiations, namely retention of the single market and an open border on the island of Ireland.

“Chequers” fails on both counts by seeking to cherry pick parts of the single market while effectively reinstating some degree of Irish border control between north and south. Mrs May’s hastily arranged post-Summit broadcast where she rebuked the EU for a lack of courtesy smacked of desperation and missed the point. It is not up to European partners to find ways of getting this UK Tory government out of the hole it has dug for itself.  In many respects, the power cut that preceded the broadcast felt like a perfect metaphor.

Amidst this shambles and the open warfare within her government and the wider Tory party, the Prime Minister insists that only two options exist: either the UK exits the EU next March with a deal based on Chequers or it will leave with no deal at all. That, however, is a false choice. Indeed, it is no choice at all.  Importantly, it also fails to reflect what was offered to UK voters in the 2016 referendum.

The result of that vote, in my opinion, should be respected.  So too, however, should the right of voters to decide to change their minds if what was promised has not been delivered. That is not, as some suggest, defying the will of the people.  Rather it is giving people across the UK the final say over a decision with the most profound, far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for our country.

Little wonder then that support for a People’s Vote is growing stronger by the day, attracting support from across the political spectrum and beyond. Disappointingly, however, that does not yet include the leadership of either Labour or the SNP, who have spent weeks dithering over what stance to take.

Over the weekend, rumours emerged from the Labour party conference in Liverpool, that members might be given the chance to back a People’s Vote. In the event, Jeremy Corbyn appears determined to snub an option that is favoured by a majority of Labour members and supporters. A mere rubber-stamping of Mrs May’s ‘do or no deal’ offer, however, is no substitute. 

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon continues to view Brexit as a means to further her ambitions for Scottish independence.  When pressed last week by my colleague Willie Rennie, the First Minister simply confirmed she would not ‘stand in the way’ of a People’s Vote. Hardly a resounding rallying cry from someone who knows the risks posed by Brexit but seems content to let it run its course.

This is too important to stand on the sidelines or adopt a beggar thy neighbour approach. Once the detail of what Brexit means is known, UK voters should have the chance to have the final say in a People’s Vote.

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