WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH 2019
A full fifty-five weeks after we had first requested a meeting with our MP, representatives from Chipping Barnet for Europe finally met Theresa Villiers on 6 March. The venue was her office deep within Portcullis House, opposite the Palace of Westminster.
Ms Villiers opened with a short homily about how she was committed to listening to all of her constituents and ensuring there was a Brexit that worked for everyone. We waited politely until she had stopped and then began the meeting.
We explained that CB4EU was founded in November 2017 with the aim of ensuring the UK remains safe, tolerant, outward-looking and prosperous, as a full and active member of the EU. We are opposed to Brexit in any form. We are politically non-aligned and critical of all Brexiters, whatever their party. We explained that we have around 500 members and some 5,200 Twitter followers. (Theresa Villiers’ majority is 353, which is possibly why she is now prepared to take us seriously).
We knew we were not going to be changing anyone’s mind. But we had three main objectives:
- to achieve a fuller understanding of Theresa Villiers’ position on Brexit as our local MP;
- to explore the rationale for her resistance to a People’s Vote;
- to discuss the potential impact of Brexit on Barnet and the need to mitigate its effects, should Brexit actually happen.
Theresa Villiers’ Position
Theresa Villiers said she would be unable to support the government’s Brexit deal without changes to the Northern Ireland backstop (designed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic). She is an advocate of the so-called ‘Malthouse Compromise’, which is “designed to ensure the continuation of an invisible, free-flowing and compliant border for NI, but without new physical infrastructure or checks at the border”.
The trouble is, the “alternative arrangements” envisaged do not currently exist anywhere in the world. When pressed, Ms Villiers argued that “the technology is there, but hasn’t come together yet” and that elements of it had been “piloted”.
We asked what would persuade Ms Villiers to support Mrs May’s deal. She said she would make up her mind once negotiations had been concluded. We reminded her of what she had said in a Sunday Express article on 10 February:
“Warm words will not be sufficient. Some kind of ‘joint interpretative instrument’ or ‘codicil’ will not be sufficient. We need major changes to the text of the draft Withdrawal treaty if the terms of the amendment passed by parliament are to be honoured.”
We asked if she still held that view, given the European Union’s determination not to reopen negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement. Ms Villiers said she had not moved from the position set out in her article.
We asked whether Ms Villiers would vote for No Deal if she if she didn’t get the changes she wanted. She said she thought it was important to keep no deal on the table. If push came to shove, she would, she said “vote in the national interest”. Our view of the national interest is of course to stop Brexit.
Since the PM’s Brexit deal was decisively rejected by a huge majority in parliament in February and looks like being voted down for a second time on 12 March, we asked Ms Villiers whether she would be comfortable with the deal being brought back for a third ‘meaningful vote’ even closer to Brexit day if substantive changes were made. She thought that would not be unreasonable.
We asked whether she thought it was acceptable to keep holding votes until she got the result she wanted. Do you agree then, we asked, that it’s OK to have a further vote if the position has changed since the first vote? These were questions that elicited a wry smile.
Why Reject at People’s Vote?
This led us into asking why, if Brexit is such a positive thing, Ms Villiers is resistant to the idea of a People’s Vote? What would be wrong with the idea of making acceptance of any Brexit deal subject to a confirmatory referendum?
Ms Villiers argued that it was important to get Brexit done quickly, because “people just want to get on with it”. Reaching a deal would provide “certainty”. We pointed out that passing the Withdrawal Agreement was only the first step in a lengthy process of renegotiating our relationship with the EU. The draft Political Declaration allegedly setting out our post-Brexit relationship with the EU was both extremely vague and, unlike the Withdrawal Agreement, not was legally binding. Negotiations could drag on for another decade.
The discussion on a People’s Vote ranged over some familiar ground:
We’ve already had a vote. To ask people to vote again would be ‘telling them they’d got it wrong’. The Referendum produced a narrow mandate to leave, but no concrete proposals. We now have much more information about the implications of the decision and there’s a deal on the table. We’d not be “telling people” to do anything. We’d be inviting them to confirm that the deal on offer is what they voted for.
You just want a different result. Yes, we do. But we have no guarantee that our view will prevail. If people still want Brexit, they’ll vote for it.
A People’s Vote would undermine confidence in democracy. It’s the government’s shambolic handling of this issue and the contempt it continues to show for parliament that’s doing that.
At the general election around 85% of people voted for parties with a manifesto commitment to leave the EU. That argument takes no account of the 6m Remainers who voted Labour with the express intention of denying Theresa May the Brexit mandate she was seeking.
A PV would be divisive. The country is already bitterly divided. The only way to bring people back together is to seek agreement on a workable way forward.
Brexit in Barnet
Turning to Brexit in Barnet (we only had half an hour, by the way) we said that we were very worried about the lack of engagement with the impact of Brexit locally.
Ms Villiers confirmed that unlike many MPs she had not held any public meetings on Brexit, and that apart from being on the panel for the Barnet Society’s discussion about Barnet Beyond Brexit (which, we would submit, is hardly the same thing) she had no intention of doing so.
We pointed out that there was huge interest in Brexit across the Borough and that the recent talk by Andrew Adonis had attracted 300 people. We asked whether Ms Villiers would accept Lord Adonis’ challenge to debate with her in Barnet. She had “no plans to debate Brexit with Andrew Adonis”. We let it be known that should she change her mind we would be more than happy to help with the logistics.
We also voiced our concerns about the Barnet Times report (28 March) about Barnet Council’s belated Brexit Impact Log, which says:
- recruitment and retention in an “already stretched” workforce could be hit if we lose EU staff;
- more than 2,800 people, 27% of the Borough’s social care staff, are EU nationals;
- a quarter of the construction arm of the Barnet Group (responsible for building council homes), are EU citizens;
- there will be “significant” financial implications if providers have to pay more to recruit staff
- there is a risk to community cohesion;
- there has been a rise in hate crimes since the 2016 referendum;
- a post-Brexit economic downturn could adversely affect council funding. (The current background is that the Council has already raised tax and earmarked £20m of savings for 2019-20).
We argued that Barnet Council Leader Richard Cornelius’ response was both dismissive and arrogant. He has consistently argued that Brexit is a national, rather than a local issue. He refused to participate on the Local Strategic Partnership Board because it’s “not a particularly useful organisation” as key decision makers have failed to attend meetings.
We asked if Theresa Villiers would use her influence as our MP to bang heads together to ensure full participation in the Local Strategic Partnership Board as well as ensuring the Council takes its role in mitigating the effect of Brexit more seriously. Ms Villiers agreed to look at the remit of the Strategic Partnership Board and to raise our concerns with the Council leader. She agreed to write back to us (we will of course keep you informed of any developments).
We pointed out that the Council’s Brexit Impact Log findings were also reflected in the London School of Economics’ Report Understanding Brexit Impacts at Local Level – London Borough of Barnet Case Study, published in September 2018. Ms Villiers dismissed the Report as “a very poor piece of work” and said that she would not be responding to its findings.
On the question of EU nationals, Theresa Villiers argued (despite the hostile environment Brexit had created for
all foreign nationals) that Barnet was a diverse borough and a pleasant place to live and that people would still want to come from overseas to work there. She added that EU nationals returning home as a result of Brexit could be replaced by workers from non-EU countries.
On that note the meeting ended. We thanked Ms Villiers for agreeing to see us, and went to join the SODEM demonstration outside parliament.