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Democracy hasn’t ended with Article 50: This is a time to rally, not roll over

Tim Farron - Credit: Archant

Over the coming years, we must do what is best for the country. And that means shouting from the rooftops about the risks that Hard Brexit brings

The clock is ticking towards a Hard Brexit – but it can still be stopped.

The British people can still decide what happens next. It is still possible for them to stop a Hard Brexit and keep us in the single market. And if they want, it is still possible for the people to choose to remain in the European Union.

Democracy didn’t end on June 23 – and it hasn’t ended with the sending of the Article 50 letter either. The people can have their say over their futures. The Liberal Democrats will keep fighting for this.

Theresa May has chosen the most divisive form of Brexit, severing us from the single market without compromise or any idea of the consequences of doing so. The Brexit deal this Conservative government gets for the country will affect us all, but the last to accept the fallout will be the Conservatives themselves. That’s why we believe it is the people who should have the final say over our new deal with Europe. If our government does not have the foresight to captain this ship, then it is not too late to be abandoned.

For a start we still believe that membership of the single market is vital for the British economy and for the jobs of millions of people. Leaving it was not on your ballot. It is a gamble of Theresa May’s. It is something she has inserted between the lines as part of the deal that she is now after.

But we can still up the ante on our government and demand that the people have a say. The decisions coming down the line in the coming years (and I can assure you it will take longer than two) must be put to the people. We cannot see the long-term future of this country decided by an inner circle of Conservative ministers. The final say over our new deal with Europe belongs to the people, not our politicians.

On the weekend before Article 50 was triggered tens of thousands of you, your friends, your colleagues, your neighbours, marched to save Europe. The 48% worked their way through central London before gathering in huge numbers outside the Palace of Westminster. I spoke to crowds at the end and paid homage to the victims of the Westminster attack of the week before. The crowd stood united against terror and united against Brexit.

The Prime Minister could have chosen a consensual Brexit, instead she’s chosen the most extreme version and is dividing the country. Meanwhile her minsters are united in their confusion. The Brexiteers in May’s Government argue Britain will be able to agree a whole host of free trade agreements quickly and easily. It is obvious now this is nothing more than wishful thinking; Britain cannot change the rules if it isn’t committed to Europe’s game. Without the certainty of free trade, we can expect years of uncertainty for British companies and jeopardy for the British economy, British jobs and the British people.

The government is entering the most complex negotiations of British political history. It insists it has the authority to determine both the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU and our new trading relationship for the next two years. This is no better than an alternative fact. It will be impossible for a new deal, especially one garnered in Britain’s interests, to be negotiated in the two year time frame that is hoped for.

In the meantime, Whitehall will grind to a halt as it attempts to grapple with the Brexit backlash, neglecting all else – particularly the crisis in the NHS and social care. Even a bus-load of promises won’t be enough to stop Brexit from driving this country off the cliff.

May has said she would be prepared to leave the EU with no new deal in place. Without a clear plan, we can expect punishing tariffs on exports, higher prices in the shops and thousands of jobs and businesses put at risk.

But where is Her Majesty’s Opposition in all this? The popularity of last weekend’s march shows anti-Brexit sentiment is there to be mobilised. 48% of this country isn’t represented by the two main parties. But where Labour has rolled over, the Liberal Democrats have rallied. The power vacuum has seen the Liberal Democrats rise as the real opposition to the Conservative Brexit government.

It seems Jeremy Corbyn has waved the white flag on Brexit, giving May the blank cheque she needs to pursue her divisive Hard Brexit. Corbyn and Keir Starmer ordered their MPs and Peers to vote in favour of Article 50 and against an amendment to maintain our access to the single market, all without a single concession to Labour.

We can be in no doubt: because Labour danced to the Conservatives’ tune, the Conservatives are free to improvise. These parties are backing their back-benches before the British people.

We will have years of this to look forward. If the Government truly believe they can finish this process within two years they are completely deluded. There are political differences which will have to be overcome, elections which will have to play out, and that’s not even getting close to dealing with myriad trade deals which can easily take decades to iron out. Make no mistake, we are in for a slow and gruelling march towards Brexit.

We have a fight on our hands. Those of us who are pro-European, those of us who think our country will be stronger and more prosperous in the EU, must not sit silent in the years that follow. We have a duty to resist the destructive Hard Brexit that May is driving us towards.

Over the coming years we must do what is best for the country and standing up, shouting from the rooftops, and generally being a thorn in the side of Hard Brexiteers is high on the agenda.

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