No sooner had dawn broken on 24 June 2016 than talk began of Londoners barricading themselves within the confines of the M25, a separatist state of Remainers committed to a future inside the European Union. Whilst most of those proposing this did so very much tongue in cheek, a serious question was posed. How do we reconcile a national vote to Leave with the very different outcome in London, a city that prides itself on being an open, global metropolis, that thrives on the service economy and has close ties with the continent, and in which some 59.9 per cent of the population (and in certain boroughs, more than 70 per cent) voted to Remain?
This dilemma, which many London MPs have been grappling with over the past two years, is, for many, a deeply personal one. I have lived and worked in London my entire life, and have had the privilege of representing its residents, at every level of government, since I was 21 years old. Through the intervening 40 plus years, I have made no secret of my belief that we have incalculably benefited – economically, socially and culturally – from our close ties with our European neighbours. That belief has not changed.
Notwithstanding my dislike of the outcome, as a democrat I respect the vote that was delivered through the referendum and believe it is incumbent on all of us in parliament – whatever our starting position – to step up to the plate, cut through the complexities that have arisen, and find a practical way forward that delivers an orderly departure from the EU.
Quite patently, however, the vote to Leave was not a mandate for the sort of hard Brexit some of my colleagues now advocate. On that basis, I have sought throughout this process to nullify the threat of a no deal exit, which would, on any measure, set Britain back a generation, and would be particularly hard felt in our capital.
To those who have labelled me, and other likeminded colleagues, a traitor, mutineer, or one of any number of haphazard derivatives, I say this: now is not the time for ideological puritanism and rigid dogma. Politics is the art of the possible, and cool pragmatism, rooted in hard-headed reality, not theory, is required. That is why I’ll be supporting the Prime Minister’s deal tomorrow.
True, it is not perfect, but it’s the best plan on the table to protect jobs and support businesses, pulling our country back together and fulfilling the promises that have been made, which must now be kept. Crucially, by providing a transition period, from which we can negotiate our future relationship with the EU27, it allows us to avoid the sort of cliff-edge Brexit a no deal would entail, and which on Friday, the Confederation of British Industry reaffirmed would cause “profound, widespread and lasting” economic consequences. That is why they, and other key organisations in our capital, including the City of London Corporation and City UK, support the deal.
Like those representative bodies, I would prefer not to be leaving at all. But the Withdrawal Agreement is the only available option that extracts us from the EU whilst ensuring we remain on the straight and narrow. The most likely alternatives – no deal, or a second referendum – which I recognise enjoys significant traction in London, and which I have some sympathy with – carry too much risk and uncertainty, the ultimate anathema to businesses, large and small.
Compromise is a mark of mature politics, and that is what the Prime Minister’s deal is about. It certainly doesn’t give me everything I want, nor will it fulfil every wish of my Brexiteer colleagues, but it gets the job done, and more importantly, gets it done sensibly. It also offers solutions to the unique set of challenges London faces where the alternatives offer dead ends. That is why I’ll be following my head, not my heart, into the voting lobby tomorrow and supporting the deal.
Bob Neill is the MP for Bromley & Chislehurst.