Lib Dems challenge is to free sensible MPs from Brextremists destroying Britain
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New Liberal Democrat leader believes MPs from across the political spectrum will join his fight for Britain's European future
In recent weeks, I have been struck that the parallels between the Brexit campaign and Trump's campaign seem to have continued long after the elections are over.
Much like Republican politicians who have spent years campaigning against Obamacare, only to find themselves championing what they must realise is an objectively worse health insurance offer, here in the UK, Conservative and Labour MPs who claim to have 'accepted' the result are now coming to terms with the reality of life outside the European Union.
On both sides of the Atlantic, these politicians will at some point be forced to answer the simple question: 'Do I admit to my voters that I was wrong, or do I push on regardless, knowing that the consequences of doing so will damage the country?'
It is in response to this precise dilemma that cross party working has become increasingly necessary as the Brexit process goes on. The challenge for centrists is to help free sensible backbenchers from the extreme views of their respective front benches. To empower like-minded colleagues to back away from a destructive process and do what is best for the British people.
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Had Theresa May got the majority she was hoping for, this may have been a purely academic exercise, but a minority government gives cross party working the opportunity to change the course of Brexit. The ill-informed way in which May's ministers have so far approached the negotiations – look at their mystification when confronted by the realisation that US farmers would attach all sorts of conditions to a trade deal – only aid the arguments in favour of that approach. For every rumpus we have had so far about chlorinated chicken, there will be another dozen like that to come. The fact is there is a majority in parliament against a destructive, extreme-Brexit. The challenge is that it transcends party politics.
This is not an easy task. The leadership of the two biggest parties has been pushed to extremes on the left and the right, Theresa May seeking to return to an anti-foreigner sentiment of the 1950s, Jeremy Corbyn seeking to return to an anti-capitalist sentiment of the 1970s.
What the two leaders share, other than a misplaced nostalgia, is a profound mistrust of economics. That whatever damage an extreme Brexit will bring, we should crack on regardless. Not since the war has a government – or official opposition – so disregarded how a decision will impact so fundamentally on our economy – with all that flows from that.
A Chamber of Commerce survey of businesses found only 2% say 'no deal' is an option, and 28% support May's (and Jeremy Corbyn's) present approach, versus 54% for softer options. That is a pretty overwhelming rejection of the policies of our two largest parties by a respected business organisation, along with the TUC – yet the virtually unanswerable economic case for remaining in the single market and customs union is ignored.
But this anti-economics, ideologically driven approach hides the inconvenient truth (for the two leaders) that MPs from across the spectrum have a huge amount of common ground. Be it a commitment to remaining in a market which receives 44% of our exports or preventing the weakening of important environmental regulations, or ensuring EU citizens are given unilateral rights, those of us on the centre ground must resist the temptation to be tribal.
As the newly installed leader of the Liberal Democrats, I'm determined to help create an environment in parliament which allows for this to happen. That does not mean everybody agreeing on everything. The Liberal Democrats are clear that we do not believe that the UK can get a deal better than the one we have as a member of the EU. For this reason, we have long called for a referendum on the final deal, so that people, not politicians, can decide whether the negotiation is successful.
While I think that over time more politicians from across the spectrum will come to support this position, I do not expect them to immediately come around to our way of thinking. Doing so is certainly not a prerequisite for working together on the aspects of Brexit that we already agree on.
This is an opportunity for British politicians to diverge from the current narrative in the US. The chances there of a bipartisan deal on healthcare, or anything else for that matter, are almost nil. A few Republicans, fearing their constituents, have prevented the ramming through of the reforms, it seems likely they eventually they will be bullied by Trump and his supporters into acquiescence, leaving 22 million people without coverage.
If the equivalent happens here with Brexit, it will be many more millions who suffer. Every community, family and business will be touched by the consequences of unnecessarily pulling out of the single market, of a bad Brexit deal. The British people did not vote to make themselves poorer. As it becomes clearer every day with weakening growth and rising prices that we are already experiencing a Brexit downturn, more and more MPs of different parties will join the Liberal Democrat fight for our European future.
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