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The speech Theresa May must make immediately to rescue the country from this crisis

Theresa May in the House of Commons. Photograph: UK Parliament/Mark Duffy. - Credit: PA

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL says the prime minister needs to put the country first – ahead of her party. This is the speech she needs to make right now in the House of Commons.

Here, dear reader, is the speech I believe Theresa May should make in the House of Commons. Now. Today. Immediately. To rescue the country from this crisis, to begin to rebuild our international reputation which is being trashed all over the world every day right now, and – though this is the least important so far as I am concerned – to salvage something for her reputation and legacy.

I am sure some will think that any advice I give her would be designed to undermine rather than support. But I honestly believe, with all conviction I possess, that this is now the only way forward, the only way to prevent this being a moment of steep national decline from which it will take decades to recover. Please, prime minister, if you really mean it when you say the country comes first, ahead of your wretched party whose psychodramas and Bullingdon leadership games have damaged us so much, do this. Soon. Before it is too late.

Mr Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a statement on the Brexit crisis. And crisis it is. Constitutional. Diplomatic. Political. And, unless we in this House act now in the way I will set out today, it is fast becoming an economic crisis too, for which none of us, and yes this side especially, will ever be forgiven.

On June 23, 2016, the British people gave us an instruction – to leave the European Union. Since then, the government and this House have sought to deliver on that instruction, but to do so in a way that does not damage the lives and livelihoods of the people who sent us here.

I continue to believe that the Withdrawal Agreement I reached with the European Union is the best way to do this. However, I have failed to persuade the House or the country. I have tried my best, but I must accept that my deal is dead. And I do. Mr Speaker, it will not be coming back again.

So now, we must find another way forward, government having failed to deliver its own policy, parliament having failed to agree an alternative, the public and businesses at home and abroad watching on with a mounting sense of anger, anxiety, and alarm.

I freely accept that in most circumstances, when a prime minister is defeated so comprehensively on the government’s most important policy, that prime minister, and that government, should resign.

However, I am wholly unpersuaded that a change of prime minister via a Conservative Party leadership election, or a change of government via a general election, will resolve this crisis.

I have indicated I shall leave office as soon as Brexit is resolved. I believe a leadership election in the midst of all this would merely fuel the crisis, added to which I would have genuine fear for the country should any of those, whose campaign of simple slogans won in 2016, become prime minister, and decide that leaving without an agreement is now the way forward.

Nor do I believe a general election is the answer. Though I accept the divisions on this side are greater, there are enormous divisions on the Labour side too, as shown by around a dozen of the Labour leader’s frontbench defying the Labour whip, including the party’s chairman, and with his own members so clearly at odds with the leader’s own stance, it is far from clear what policy they would put to the electorate.

I am not persuaded that a compromise around the customs union or so-called common market 2.0 meets the demands of either side of the debate. If my deal is – was – seen as the worst of all worlds I think Norway is even worse. I’m sure members opposite will be aware of the Norwegian Labour leader Jonas Gahr Store, who has said it is just about ok for Norway but it would not be good for the UK, that Norway is rule-taker not rule-maker, that the four freedoms, including freedom of movement, remain intact.

I must also say, with all due respect to the leader of the opposition, that I do not believe the country is in a mood to give either of us a majority. Given the mess we the government are in, and have been for some time, he can take little comfort from the state of public opinion, and I believe many of his MPs share the sense of dread felt by many of mine at the prospect of a general election, particularly if he and I were to be leading our parties in it.

More importantly, Mr Speaker, the issue of Brexit is now so big, and so defining, I feel it must be resolved on its own, separate from the myriad other important issues which people wish to consider in a general election.

So government having failed, parliament having reached deadlock, other than in its rejection of no-deal, a change of prime minister or of government unlikely to resolve the crisis, I am afraid there is now only one option left to us. Brexit must go back to the people.

I have set out many times my reasons for opposing another referendum, which I know are shared widely across this House. However, we having failed to resolve the issue, I feel we now have no other choice.

The question then, is the choice we offer to the British people. And the role I as prime minister should play.

My deal having been defeated several times in this House, it should not be one of the options. I should cease to be a player in this process, and instead become its referee; dealing with all sides of the debate, in a way I sadly did not do adequately when seeking to build support for my own deal, as parliament agrees the details of the choice between the two options which have the most support among the public: a clear, definitive Brexit, and no Brexit.

The problem with 2016 was that Brexit could mean anything anyone wanted it to mean. Soft, hard, WTO, NHS, jobs-first, any and every label and claim has been attached to it, and a coalition of support built for the general principle, since when the practicalities have become all too real, and have clashed with so many of the promises made, by me and by others. I have to accept that we have wasted a lot of time in pursuing options that cannot work and in seeking to fulfil promises that cannot be met.

It is time for all of us in this House to be honest about the choices we face and about the implications of those choices. The debate on both sides three years ago was defined, not unfairly, as Project Fear losing to Project Lies. That dismal campaign cannot be repeated.

The Brexit side must be obliged to submit a plan that is clear, credible, deliverable, negotiable in Europe, rooted in the real world. And those who argue for staying in must also address the concerns people have that led so many to want to leave the EU. I shall be, now and in any referendum which follows, neutral as this straight choice is developed. Real plans have to be brought forward and agreed by both sides as the choice we put to the country.

This process needs time. The worst thing we could do is snatch at a solution based on the indicative votes process, which has failed to deliver the clarity many hoped it would.

I shall therefore be requesting a long extension from the EU. I have indicated my intentions to several of my fellow leaders and I am confident we will get the time needed. I know the opposition to this approach. I accept the difficulties. I accept there are ministers and MPs on my side who will feel they cannot support this. That is their choice to make. But I believe we as a government, as a parliament, and as a country, have no choice but to put this back to the people.

I am aware many in this House do not wish us to take part in the European elections. But take part we must. If we can agree the choice to put to the people, it might be we can hold the referendum soon. It is not as though the country has not heard most of the arguments being rehearsed.

But we must take whatever time we need to frame this choice in the right way, leading to an outcome all agree in advance to accept.

I believe I can lead the country through this period and help to preside over this process. Freed from being wholly attached to one outcome I feel I will be better placed to help the House and the country find a way forward out of the crisis for which we all, and yes myself very much included, have responsibility.

In the meantime, as the two sides of the debate shape up and I take on this different role, though clearly this Brexit process will be a major part of my workload, I will have more time and space to focus on the other challenges our country faces, the burning injustices I highlighted on becoming prime minister, and which Brexit has been preventing us from addressing.

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