Northern Lights: ‘We have to extend Article 50 to sort out this Brexit mess once and for all’, writes Sir David Blunkett

With apologies to all of you who are sick of it, I’m afraid I do have to write about Brexit.

Thursday, 31st January 2019, 17:00 pm
Updated Thursday, 31st January 2019, 17:03 pm

By the time this column appears, there will have been further votes in the House of Commons on Tuesday of this week. My thoughts predate January 29, but I felt it really important to spell out the critical nature of where we are at, and what it means for Sheffield.

Those of us in the political arena received an instruction two and a half years ago: the British people wanted us to withdraw from the European Union.

It came as a shock, not least because Sheffield was the only university city, and the only city of any size, that voted to leave.

This was by a very narrow majority of 51 to 49 but nevertheless it was still a vote to leave.

The present Prime Minister was put in an impossible position: to deliver for the British people what she thought they had instructed the government to achieve, while at the same time protecting the interests of our economy, our commerce and wider well-being.

When the House of Commons voted by a majority of 230 – unprecedented in any part of our democratic history – to reject the negotiated deal that she’d endeavoured to put together, all of us have to think again.

What now are the real options? For the out and out Brexiteers, those who say ‘we voted to come out so just get out’, a ‘no deal’ Brexit is something to be desired rather than feared.

There is the notion that it really doesn’t matter what the economic and business consequences might be, that’s what we want and we are prepared to put up with the damage.

It’s the modern version of the ‘Ragged-Trousered  Philanthropists’ to reflect on the book by Robert Tressell over a century ago. It is almost like a person with perpetual pain in the left leg that decides what they really want to do is cut it off.

Yes, they’ll have a prosthetic leg to get used to. Yes, it will be deeply painful and won’t work like the real leg did. Yes, it’s irrational and there are other ways of restoring full use of the limb but they can’t stand it any longer so the solution is to cut it off!

That, in my view, is exactly where we are at in terms of those who voted out, and simply want to get on with getting ‘out’.

The option of a hard Brexit would leave us dependent on the World Trade Organisation arrangements involving substantial tariffs on most goods.

The consequences would not just be unfortunate, they would be devastating.

 

So what other options exist? Well of course Theresa May’s option has already been rejected. Ironically, for those committed to Brexit it would probably have been better if they had accepted her compromise, and who knows, with adaptations they might still.

The other option that has been floated is to become part of the European Economic Area. To have what in the jargon is known as the Norwegian (or Norwegian-plus) solution.

This involves accepting the rules of the European Union, of alignment in terms of customs and what’s known as the Single Market, of adhering to the regulations laid down, paying in to the European Union and of course adhering to the ‘rules’ of free movement of labour.

You have no say over any of it other than protesting from the outside and you have no determination of funding, borders or laws.

My own view is that this is the worst of all worlds. We actually remain in the European Union while pretending to be out of it; we’ve left but we haven’t left. This is ‘Hotel California’.

So what are we left with? Reluctantly, really reluctantly, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only option is to go back to the British people.

To ask whether they do want the options that I’ve laid out or whether with another referendum, we should agree to stay in the European Union and argue to change it dramatically.

Things have changed substantially over the mere three years since the Referendum. Much has changed within Europe.  

It is by no means certain that a vote to stay in will succeed but there’s got to be a break in the absurdity of what is happening to us.

We really do have to extend Article 50 which means delaying, by three months, the date by which

we come out of the European Union, to allow us time to try to sort this mess out once and for all.

Let’s be honest about it, go back to the British people and get a new mandate.

That, in my view, is the only way.