In the space of a fortnight, Britain’s political landscape has changed beyond measure. The electorate has exercised its democratic right to leave the EU; an incredibly decent and capable Prime Minister has sadly resigned; and the future leadership of three of our other main political parties – Labour, Green, and UKIP – is equally unknown. Taken together with the renewed calls for independence in the devolved administrations, this is an unprecedented period of change and uncertainty.
As someone who campaigned on the genuine and long held belief that we are better off in the EU, economically, socially, and in terms of our national security, this has been one of the hardest and most challenging fortnights of my political career.
However, I am equally clear that we must now come together as a nation and look to the future. Although the Referendum was, technically speaking, only advisory, a clear expression of the will of the majority must be respected. On this point, since the Referendum a number of people have written to me urging that I vote against the triggering of Article 50 in due course. This is something I will not do. I appreciate that many people are bitterly disappointed by the outcome – and I am one of them - but it would be wholly inappropriate, and politically untenable, to now change the terms of the Referendum in the hope of influencing a different end result. That is not the courageous thing to do, as some have suggested. It is undemocratic and would fundamentally undermine trust between politicians and voters, which is strained enough as it is.
We have to get beyond what was and wasn’t said during the course of the campaign - as frankly speaking, everyone has the ability to access the hard facts, if they are inclined to do so – and because this is unprecedented, arguments upon both sides had to be to some degree based upon conjecture. We must now ensure that we negotiate an orderly exit from the EU that works for everyone, including the 48% who voted to remain. The Electoral Commission is carrying out an assessment on the conduct of the Referendum and its respective campaigns, as well as a survey on people’s overall satisfaction of how the Referendum was conducted.
Some correspondents have argued that Bromley and Chislehurst voted to stay. That cannot be said with certainty. The London Borough of Bromley as a whole narrowly voted to remain – something I obviously welcome - but the vote has not been aggregated by Parliamentary constituencies. From the responses I received canvassing door to door, it is difficult to conclude which way the majority of the constituency ultimately voted.
I also believe it is misguided to state, retrospectively, that the Referendum has somehow eroded or undermined our Parliamentary democracy. As your MP, I scrutinise Government policy every day, and vote, according to Burke’s classic definition, with my constituents’ views and opinions always in mind, but ultimately based on my own judgement and experience. An MP is a representative and not a delegate.
However, on a question as big as our membership of the EU – an issue that, one way or another, has crept into virtually every policy area – direct consultation through a referendum is legitimate. Unlike many other EU member states, whose populations vote via a referendum every time there is a Treaty change, this is something the British people had been denied a say on for over 40 years, in which time the EU has changed beyond recognition. Very few people expressed to me a preference not to have this vote before the Referendum took place, and I still believe it was right to give people this choice.
There are also now plenty of precedents for referenda in the UK on constitutional issues. The 1975 Referendum on staying in the EU, or more recently the referenda on Scottish and Welsh devolution, the creation of a Mayor of London and the GLA, and on mayors elsewhere. In the last Parliament, people were given a choice on a possible change to our voting system, and, of course, on Scottish independence. The majority of these did not have a threshold for the turnout, nor was a winning majority required, any more than there is in a general election.
Article 50 is the only proper, legal means of us exiting. Any attempt to circumvent it would not only be wrong, but would also involve this country in a unilateral breach of its international obligations, something I would never support. There is no rush for us to trigger Article 50, and we certainly should not do so before we have a firm plan of how best to progress. To those who voted to leave, I would make clear that this is not a sign the Government is stalling or attempting to overturn the decision. Our membership will be revoked, but the proper and necessary groundwork needs to be laid first.
We are entering a period of intense uncertainty, and at this time more than any other in our recent history we need to come together to reconcile fractured, and in some cases, embittered, communities. Already we have seen the dangers of unchecked nationalism, with a spate of vile, racist and xenophobic attacks being reported. Those communities that have been targeted need to know they are welcome in Britain; that we appreciate the wonderful contribution they have made to our country; and that hate crime, in any form, will not be tolerated. That is not who we are.
The rights of EU nationals who have made Britain their home must be protected, as should those of UK citizens living in the EU. There was an Urgent Question about this in the House on Monday, which I attended, and I will be working constructively with the Government to achieve this. The opposition motion tabled yesterday would not be sufficient to do so. It is not legally binding, and in my view, was unfortunately a partisan device used by Labour to distract from their own ongoing issues. I would also stress that if you are married to an EU national, or alternatively if you are an EU national with a UK spouse, you are in any event protected by your right to family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), of which we continue to be members, and I am strongly committed we stay so.
Going forward, the Bank of England has taken the appropriate measures to stabilise the economy, an expert negotiating team is being assembled, and the Government will continue to proceed with the important reforms it set out in the Queen’s Speech. My personal priorities will be in ensuring we retain access to the Single Market, not just for goods but critically for services – something that is vital to thousands of local residents who are employed in the financial services sector – that London and Gibraltar (which is especially vulnerable if we lose all Single Market protection) both have a seat at the Brexit negotiating table, and that we remain signatories of the ECHR.
With regards to the Party leadership, Michael Gove having been eliminated, I have no hesitation in now giving my full support to Theresa May. The person who becomes our next Prime Minister must have already had top level Ministerial experience. Only Theresa fits the bill.