Last week’s results have sent both major political parties running for cover. Conservative candidates in the leadership contest increasingly talk of a no-deal Brexit to fight the threat of Nigel Farage.
Labour now wants a second referendum as the Lib Dems and Greens threaten its pro-Europe London base.
The EU elections told us, once more, we are a nation divided with both sides of the debate either inside or outside Parliament unwilling to budge. We face a potential fight to the death with, in theory at least, the winner taking all and the country as divided as ever, locked in continual battle.
Meanwhile , the social and economic divisions which lay behind many peoples’ desire to leave the EU will also continue and the chance to heal the nation will have been lost.
If we are to obtain a sustainable position on EU membership, we can’t carry on as we are. A solution has to be found which addresses those social and economic divisions we face and is one in which both sides can have a stake. Otherwise the country will become moribund.
My view is we are asking the wrong exam question. EU membership is not an end in itself, but rather a vehicle to achieve something greater for our country.
Before deciding whether the EU can help us, we need to know what type of country we want to be. Therein lies the real problem. A lack of political leadership and vision. All our parties have failed to give us a sense of direction, ambition or hope for the future.
We need something we can aspire to both individually and collectively as a nation. We need to see a future for our children and grandchildren.
We need political leaders to create a national debate on the UK’s future and to bring people together. The question of EU membership can then be judged against those goals.
Instead of leadership we are engulfed in a culture of political cunning where nothing is what it seems and very few mean what they say.
We are rudderless.
Yet we can escape this mess. Not by one side trying to defeat the other but by both sides having a stake in the solution.
The feeling on the doorstep is palpable. I have never encountered an electorate so angry and dissatisfied.
A number of measures are required if both sides are to own the process and its outcome.
Firstly, that national debate needs to begin. What is the vision for the future? What type of country are we to be? What do those things mean for our public services? What does a fair taxation system look like? How can wealth creators in business best be supported? How do we educate our children for a shrinking world and its economic complexities? How do we build homes for the nation, keep our streets safe and live healthier lives? Where are the jobs of the future coming from?
Work those out and the question of EU membership will be easily resolved.
At the same time we need to respect the referendum result – our democracy is at stake – and take the deal on offer.
The great myth of the debate is that it is a ‘bad deal’. This is simply the zealots of both Leave and Remain conspiring to prevent progress in the hope that their aims of a no deal Brexit or a second referendum are the positions we default to.
The Theresa May deal treads the fine line of keeping UK sovereignty in the areas such as migration whilst, at the same time, having a strong and constructive relationship with our EU partners. It provides the platform for a strong trading relationship with Europe and in doing so moves us towards a solution to the Irish border question.
It also creates the economic stability our business community so desperately needs.
We also need to recognise people have the right to change their minds, especially young people whose future we are now trying to determine.
So I would have a further referendum about EU membership. In five years time.
Do we stay out or re-enter? People will know by then and can make an informed decision.
A vision for the future, knowledge and experience of being within and outside the EU and clear about the terms of re-entry, because that’s also a conversation we can have with the EU now.
In short we have an opportunity to spend the next five years tearing the country apart or building one which our grandchildren will eventually be proud of. I hope out leaders choose wisely.
Sir Steve Houghton is a Labour councillor and the leader of Barnsley Council.