Norman Lamb: Brexit is a mess - here’s how we get out of it

PUBLISHED: 13:22 15 April 2019 | UPDATED: 13:22 15 April 2019

Prime Minister Theresa May at the European Council in Brussels where European Union leaders are meeting to discuss Brexit. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Prime Minister Theresa May at the European Council in Brussels where European Union leaders are meeting to discuss Brexit. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb says we, and Theresa May, can’t carry on like this. So what’s to be done?

North Norfolk Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb Photo: UK ParliamentNorth Norfolk Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb Photo: UK Parliament

So, an extension to Article 50 has been granted, to the fury of one side of this fractious argument and to the relief of the other.

The only thing that unites people is a belief that politics has failed.

The reputation of Parliament and of politicians has reached an all time low.

So how do we get out of this mess?

First, I should say how I approach this fraught subject.

I am a Liberal. I'm an internationalist. I strongly believe in the vision of unity for our continent. But I struggle with the notion that we should elevate support for a flawed institution, the European Union, into an article of faith.

I campaigned and voted for Remain but I did so without any great enthusiasm for the EU. I have always felt that my party loses its critical faculties when it comes to the EU. We agitate for reform of our domestic system of Government. We want to decentralise power, bringing decision making closer to the citizen. We fight for real democracy and for accountability. Yet when it comes to the EU, we seem to lose our enthusiasm for such reform. So although I was very clear that it is better to stay and to fight for change, I found myself having sympathy with the sentiments of many people who voted to leave.

Now, after nearly three years of angry debate, we have a country which is even more deeply divided. We can't carry on like this. We risk breaking the social contract which binds our country together.

A recent poll showed that 46% of people want to leave the EU with no deal with 39% opting for just cancelling the whole Brexit process. So it is dangerous for any of those distressed by the decision to leave, to make any assumption that another referendum will inevitably result in a reversal of Brexit, quite apart from any hope of bringing closure for the country.

Much of the responsibility for this mess must rest with Theresa May.

Her approach was based on a fruitless attempt to keep the Conservative Party together rather than reuniting our country. At no stage did she try to build a consensus across Parliament.

Red lines were drawn which ruled out maintaining the closest possible economic relationship, so as to protect jobs.

The Prime Minister repeatedly told us that no deal was better than a bad deal, so who can blame anyone for thinking that it is fine just to leave, with no economic consequences.

Yet, when push came to shove, she concluded that leaving with no deal could be disastrous for our country and for people's jobs and so confirmed that she would seek a further extension.

In this way, trust is fatally undermined.

But looking back at who is to blame for the mess we are in, doesn't help to resolve it.

So how should we use any extension to extract us from this destructive mess? I firmly believe that now is the time to try to start bringing the country back together again, healing deep wounds which are so dangerous.

Politicians of all persuasions must commit to working together, putting the country first.

We should establish a Parliamentary Commission which should consult with industry - bosses and worker representatives - and with civic society. We should involve people from across the country through Citizens' Assemblies.

This approach has been used to address apparently intractable problems, such as in Ireland in the run-up to their referendum on abortion.

This should not be a stitch-up in Westminster.

No solution is perfect. The extremists on both sides will shout betrayal at any compromise.

My belief is that probably the best outcome is one that involves the UK leaving the political union but maintaining the closest economic relationship, which protects jobs and the economy.

That is why I departed from my Liberal Democrat colleagues and voted for what is known as Common Market 2.0 and for membership of the Customs Union.

Avoiding damaging tariffs and enabling goods and components for manufacturing to flow freely across borders is so important to our economy and to attracting investment.

Mrs Thatcher was, after all, one of the original architects of the single market.

I also want to maintain all the positive associations, particularly in science. Collaboration across European universities is hugely valuable and the UK consistently punches above its weight.

Let's also maintain close collaboration on medicines.

If, through the sort of consultative process I describe, we can come up with a proposed settlement for the future of our country then there is a case for putting this to the people in a confirmatory referendum.

In that way we might just rebuild a sense of unity of purpose for our country. Then we can get back to confronting all the massive challenges we face such as how we maintain an effective health and care system as we all live longer or the challenge of climate change which has such dire potential consequences. We have been neglecting these, and many other issues, for far too long.

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