So I’m back from Lib Dem conference and what an amazing time I had. I met so many lovely people am grateful to them all for being so warm and hospitable towards me. I also attended some very interesting debates on future Lib Dem policy, the most attended of which was probably the debate on our EU position, which I voted in favour of. The debate attracted Lib Dem big wigs such as former leaders Ming Campbell and Nick Clegg, as they urged the delegates to support a referendum on the terms of the Brexit negotiation; something which, has attracted heavy criticism from political commentators and indeed some within the party itself. But I fully support the notion of a “terms of Brexit” referendum: here’s why.
We have to remember the question that was put to the British people on the 23rd June: “Should the UK remain a member of the EU, or leave the EU?” As we know, 52% of all those who voted chose to leave. They did not, however, choose whether they wanted to leave the single market or put a halt to the freedom of movement. Yes, these two issues were used by the leave campaign to bolster support for their case, but there was nothing about that referendum question that remotely indicated what our relationship with the European Union post-Brexit, would look like. So, addition to the left-right divide on the political spectrum, we now find ourselves faced with having to determine whether one is soft-Brexit or hard-Brexit. The soft-Brexiteers would ideally keep access to the single-market, therefore accepting the freedom of movement, as well as other perceived benefits of a non-membership of the EU. The hard-Brexiteers want a complete separation from the EU: no single market; no freedom of movement.
So we Lib Dems, as a pro-European party lost the referendum. We accept that. But what we think is in the interests of democracy and “having control”, is to let the British people decide what the destination of our departure should be. Is it right to allow the British government to impose a deal upon the country that perhaps many of those of voted leave did not want? Is it right for the government to select a deal for the country, knowing that it would have disastrous effects for our economy and businesses? We say, no it is not. And so we passed a policy on Monday to call for a referendum that allows the British people the chance to have their say on whether or not they accept the terms of the Brexit negotiation. If the public accepts them, then we leave. If they do not accept them, then that says that the public believes it is better off remaining a member of the EU than accepting a deal which they see as putting us in a worse off position.
There is nothing undemocratic or illiberal about that. We do not want to rerun the referendum simply because we did not get the outcome we so desperately wanted. As Tim Farron said throughout the party conference, what we believe on the 23rd June is the same as what we believe today – we will always think that the UK is better off inside the EU and we will always advocate that position. And by offering this referendum, not only are reaching out the 48% who voted remain, giving them another chance to have their voices heard, but we are also reaching out to the 52% who voted to leave. This referendum will give them the opportunity to express what sort of deal they want from their government; if anything, this referendum is more for the leavers than the remainers.
I’ve thought of a helpful analogy for this question. Let’s imagine you offer someone boiled eggs. You don’t offer them hard boiled or soft boiled eggs – just boiled eggs. The person accepts boiled eggs and you present them with hard boiled eggs, with no toast soldiers. The person who you asked actually wanted soft boiled eggs with soldiers, but they weren’t given the opportunity to speak out about that, instead they’re having what the chef thinks they want based on no evidence at all. The Liberal Democrats’ Brexit-deal referendum is giving the British people the chance to decided whether or not they want hard boiled eggs, or soft boiled eggs. And if it comes back that soft boiled eggs with toast isn’t even on offer, well then the British people can decide they don’t want boiled eggs at all.
Ladies and gentlemen – the Breggsit referendum…
We are the only party offering this referendum: unless of course Labour is lead by Owen Smith after Saturday. We are the only party prepared to entrust the British people with departure and destination. We are the only party committed to speaking to and learning from the 52% who voted to leave. We are the only party, speaking to and for the 100%.