For three days in early February 2017 the House of Commons debated and voted on an historic issue – should the Prime Minister be given the authority to give the European Union formal notice of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from membership? It had been a long time in coming, after years of campaigning and splits in both major parties, with leaders and Prime Ministers toppled over the issue, requring a referendum, a Supreme Court judgement, and now a battle over the hearts of MPs themselves. MPs, the vast majority of whom campaigned for Remain, voted in the end overwhelmingly to grant Theresa May the authority to tell our European allies we are leaving the Union.
It was by any standards an extraordinary spectacle. Few MPs have come out of those three days with their reputations enhanced. The debates were scrappy and ill-tempered. Remainers have been cowed by the referendum result. Some Brexiteers seemingly cannot absorb the fact their side won and bang on relentlessly. More grace and elegance would be welcome and both sides need to catch-up with the fact that the debate at Westminster now lags behind what is going on outside. Businesses, voluntary groups, society as a whole understands that Brexit is now a fact, a process and not an argument. Politicians and much of the national media need to catch-up.
Only Ken Clarke stuck to a lifetime’s set of convictions and voted against the Government. He may or may not be right on the issues, but his speech and interventions were powerful and authoritative. In an age when speeches made in the Commons Chamber carry less impact than a tweet, his arguments were never going to have much public impact. Nevertheless in the years to come his speech in this debate may well go down as the last great contribution to a generation whose time is now passing. He showed his characteristic courage and integrity. In the last years of a remarkable Parliamentary career, Ken Clarke held true to his values and convictions.
On time and in good order Theresa May is delivering the Brexit timetable she has set out. In the weeks and months that lie ahead, this last week may well look like the easy part. Once the Lords have had their say the Prime Minister will begin actually negotiating with Brussels. For all the huffing and puffing the fact is the UK has yet to formally talk to anyone but itself about Brexit.
Successful talks are in the interests of both the UK and the EU, but not everyone wants to see them work out. There are small but vociferous groups in Europe and in the UK who, for different reasons, would be happy to see talks fail. Cooler heads on both sides need to prevail. European politics is another factor. In Germany, France, the Netherlands, and possibly Austria, general elections could dramatically change the political landscape. Although obscured by larger events, Greece’s economic woes are appalling. The Greeks can’t be expected to put up with the pain of Euro membership forever without some relief of some kind being delivered. High youth unemployment in Spain threatens another spring and summer of unrest and discontent. The UK remains one of the most economically and politically stable countries in Western Europe and will remain one of the EU’s most important partners in a whole range of areas. The EU and the UK need a good amicable and sensible deal.
The areas that we want to discuss with the EU are big, difficult and complicated, but that need not mean the discussions take a long time. Both sides know each other well. It is the will to make the discussions work successfully that is the key. From both sides that is going to take great leadership, determination and stamina.