In January I wrote in Yorkshire Bylines that the petition, started by pro-European campaign group Leeds for Europe, “We call upon the government to hold a public inquiry into the impact of Brexit” had reached 100,000 signatures and so had to be considered for debate in the House of Commons. That debate was held on Monday 24 April and Leeds for Europe attended.
A significant milestone
Initially the campaign to promote the petition was run solely by Leeds for Europe, but following the election of the dynamic Dr Mike Galsworthy as the new chair of the European Movement UK we were able to call on his and EMUK’s larger resources and contacts to promote the petition and knowledge of the debate.
In the couple of weeks before the debate there was a huge effort to encourage more people to sign the petition this really bore fruit when celebrity and more lately political activist Carol Vorderman tweeted about the petition encouraging her followers to sign. This pushed up the number of signatures to over 187,000 by the time of the debate.
It is fair to say that there was some cynicism about the debate, and whilst it is true that there is no vote at the end of a petitions debate, and it does not bind the government this was an important debate. It was an important event because it was the first time MPs were able to debate the impact Brexit has had since the UK left the EU.
The opening gambit
The Leeds for Europe team met at Leeds station and in what must be some sort of metaphor for Brexit Britain, our train was cancelled but we managed to catch the earlier train which had been delayed. The good news was that a Twitter storm had got #BrexitInquiry trending with about 50,000 tweets.
On arrival at Westminster, and after the most intrusive and thorough security check any of us had ever experienced we were treated to tea and scones by our MP Fabian Hamilton before making our way to the debate.
Martyn Day (SNP) opened the debate and really set the tone:
“It is fair to say that the economic impact of Brexit falls well short of the benefits that the UK enjoyed with EU membership; the OBR expects our withdrawal from that to reduce the overall trade intensity of the UK economy by 15% in the long term. The OBR’s latest Brexit analysis assumes that the trade and co-operation agreement, which sets the terms of the post-Brexit trading relationship between the UK and the EU, will reduce the potential productivity of the UK economy by 4%, largely due to the increase in non-tariff barriers.”
The first MP to be called to speak was Adam Holloway (Conservative), the only Tory MP to attend the debate. Throughout the opening speech he was red-faced, agitated, and how shall I put it? Well frankly he looked worse the wear. He immediately launched into the democratic vote, sovereignty, and patriotism tropes. He claimed that the Brexit his constituents voted for had not been delivered because “For years the government, with the collusion of the civil service, treated Brexit as a gigantic, strategic mistake by the people of the United Kingdom, and they saw their role as one of damage limitation”.
If we only believed more… he seemed to think the debate was one hilarious joke and at one point refused to give way to Stella Creasy (Labour) because his blood pressure was too high and there were a lot of Remainers there! It was just the usual Brexiter denial nonsense.
Truth and denial
Leeds Central MP, Hilary Benn (Labour) gave an excellent speech and addressed Mr Holloway’s sovereignty argument, saying “I respect people’s right to hold that view; I fundamentally disagree with it. But what was unforgiveable was to claim that we could have all our sovereignty, keep all the benefits of being a member of the European Union and get further benefits on top of that. It simply was not true, and we now know it was not true”.
My personal favourite Brexit story was told by Hywel Williams (Plaid) who told us of a business in his constituency called Seoint Nurseries, who export live plants to Ireland which, because they are on the Welsh coast they can actually see, but now have to export by going “through England, Belgium and France, down to Normandy or Brittany and over the long sea crossing to Ireland”.
Steven Doughty, shadow minister for commonwealth and foreign affairs, responded to the debate for the Labour Party and disappointingly stated “We will not seek to rejoin the EU, the single market or the customs union” and repeated the claim Labour would make Brexit work.
Leo Docherty, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, who had his head in his hands for most of the debate responded for the government. In truth, his reply of “choppy waters” and “economic headwinds” is not really worth reporting, other than to say there was very little difference in his promises of how the government will “make Brexit work” to the promises made by Steven Doughty.
The beginning of a long conversation
At the end the, in answer to the question ‘That this House has considered e-petition 628226, relating to the impact of the UK’s exit from the European Union’, the ‘ayes’ had it.
So, was it worth it? Will this debate change anything? I think yes on both questions. For the first time since the UK exited the EU, MPs were able to debate and draw attention to the impact of Brexit on the UK in the House of Commons. The debate was reported on across the mainstream media, with even the BBC posting a piece their website.
Will it change anything? I firmly believe that the UK WILL eventually rejoin the EU and this debate will be regarded as an important milestone in that journey.