Last week marked the first meeting of the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union. Whilst I make no secret of this being the one committee I neither hoped nor wanted to come into being, ‘we are where we are’ in that terrible phrase, and I was proud to be elected by colleagues to it. As a declared Remainer, like Jeremy Lefroy MP, it proves the 1922 is not as monolithic on this issue as portrayed.
The Committee starts from a unique position. It is there following the public’s decision, rather than simply the will of the Government and Parliament, and it is nearly twice the size of the conventional Select Committee to accommodate the widest share of parties and views. Although time has passed since June 23rd, feelings are still raw, from those of us who fought and lost on the Remain side, to those who did not expect to win on the Outer side, and who seem to fear that somehow victory will be snatched from their grasp by some form of establishment plot of which this committee might be a part. The outrageous and downright dangerous response from some right-wing media to the High Court ruling on Crown Prerogative – because that’s what it was, not a decision on the Referendum – demonstrates how raw those misplaced fears are.
We will need to put the Referendum behind us, and the debates which went with it. I do not think the public, who have begun to view Select Committees and their Chairs as more detached and less partisan than politicians generally, want to see us re-run a campaign they generally thought pretty bad on all sides.
The Committee is not an executive body, which will have power to dictate a negotiating strategy to Government. It has a responsibility to examine the policies and practices of the Department. It will want in the first instance to offer advice as to where the UK’s position on Brexit should be, and seek to provide evidence from those we question publicly upon which the Government can draw, and be influenced by. We spent our first private meeting agreeing that we will need not just to listen to evidence brought to us in Parliament, but get out and about around the country to listen to those affected by the decision close to their home. While in England we tend to talk of Remainers and Brexiteers, remember there are deep issues affecting the devolved administrations and regions, with Scotland and Northern Ireland having voted decisively In, and Wales Out. This will play throughout the Committee too.
We will need to go to the Continent, and listen to the EU and representatives of the 27, because those who think that the negotiations are just about us are deluding themselves. Others have negotiating positions as well, and they are not just about trade and tariffs as some here suggest. The cohesion of the EU, it’s politics, and it’s security are fundamental not just to politicians there but to their publics.
Above all I think many on the Committee will want to offer guidance upon the tone of the negotiations. If it is all presented as a zero-sum game, if we wrap ourselves up in a Union Jack and defy others to take a contrary view or be condemned as ‘betrayers’ or ‘unpatriotic’ it will be a disaster. The health of the EU matters to us as well as that of the UK, and working out how on earth we can contrive a win-win situation out of where we are will require patience, compromise and a willingness to understand the others point of view on both sides.
The Committee is facing its first few weeks. We need to move quickly on our first Inquiry, and get some information into the public domain, and express our view on some basic issues. How we will work together, and find some degree of consensus, will be a trial for both our Chair and our members.
We must be true to our own views of what is in the UK’s best interests, and I expect fierce debate and questioning of those who come before us. But we owe it to the public to try hard to find what we agree upon, rather than where we differ. If we have to divide on our reports, let us do so in the sort of terms that the public will respect.