IF ever the saying “a week’s a long time in politics” is appropriate, it is this week. I had to write this on Friday morning but, as you are reading it on Saturday, MPs will have been in Parliament for a monumentally important vote on a Brexit deal.
Most of them have experienced a rollercoaster week, as the public have, not knowing what would happen from one hour to the next, with uncertainty on every level.
Would Boris Johnson get a deal? If so, what kind of deal? Would MPs have to vote on a No Deal Brexit on Saturday? What would the Northern Ireland arrangement finally look like and would MPs representing Northern Ireland’s seats in Parliament accept it? And if the EU is happy with the deal, does that mean it’s in Britain’s interests?
On Thursday morning, the existence of an agreed deal was announced and some of the uncertainties were resolved. What’s called a ‘deal’ is a misnomer. In fact, it’s like a divorce settlement on how we will initially co-exist with Britain outside the EU. That’s why it’s called the ‘Withdrawal Agreement’.
It’s not the long-term deal for Britain’s relationship with the EU after we leave. That doesn’t exist yet. There is a ‘Political Declaration’ about Britain’s future relationship, but it’s very brief and not binding, so it may or may not be what we end up with at all. So we should be clear that even after today’s vote, we still only really know what’s happening for Britain in the immediate future, but not much beyond that. Those who say ‘let’s get Brexit done’ do us all a disservice by glossing over that fact.
For anyone worried about Britain leaving with no deal, that is still a very real prospect. If Britain can’t agree a long-term deal by the time the Withdrawal Agreement expires at the end of 2020, we still leave with no deal. That is hardly the certainty or reassurance that people and businesses need.
I’m looking at the new proposal carefully. The devil is often in the detail so it really matters. I’ll also spend a lot of time carefully finding out what the spread of views is in my own local community. Although often politics is so focused on the short-term battles in Parliament, I can’t think of any vote that will have a more profound effect on the coming decades.
And as with any generation in charge, we are custodians for the future – our children and grandchildren will have to live in the country we create for them. Saturday will determine and directly shape that future in a way few days in Parliament do.
I recognise, and share, the weariness that set in with Brexit long ago. I didn’t come into politics especially fixated on the European Union debate. For me it was pretty much anything else – the domestic agenda and opportunity.
In a recent survey we carried out through the Social Mobility Pledge campaign, of all the regions we surveyed, Yorkshire was the one with the highest proportion of people – 49 per cent – who thought it was who you know and your background that most helped you get a promotion at work.
People don’t feel that opportunity is spread fairly in our country and that needs to change. It’s why I’m utterly fed up with the fact that we’ve debated nothing else apart from Brexit since June 2016.
But make no mistake. If the vote passes this Saturday, those who say it gets Brexit done are telling you porkies. This is not the end, rather it’s just the end of the beginning. It’s a long Brexit journey ahead, not least starting negotiations on Britain’s long-term deal.
So whatever you think about Brexit, if you now want MPs to vote for this latest deal on Saturday to ‘just get it done’ and get onto the other issues, then you are in for a very nasty surprise in the coming years. Instead we’ll have to then actually set about a long-term deal and the debate on that will be every bit as heated and dominating as the debate on our EU departure so far.
But once we have taken that step to cross the Rubicon and get on with Brexit our children will have to live with wherever Britain’s Brexit journey has taken them, whatever it means for their opportunities and careers and, more broadly, whatever it means for the United Kingdom which has existed for over 300 years.
When we’re tired and fed up, it’s a very human thing to just want to rid yourself of what’s making you so exhausted. But however MPs vote today, if any of them tell you they did so because it was time to ‘just get Brexit done’, then they’re just plain wrong. Brexit is Britain’s biggest strategic choice since the Second World War and will take years to deliver. If today’s vote goes through, enjoy the short-term euphoria that we ‘got it done’. It won’t last because we’ve not even got started on Brexit, that would all be to come.
Justine Greening is a former Education Secretary. Born in Rotherham, she was a Tory MP until having the whip withdrawn.