Thank you to everyone who has contacted me about the outcome of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.
Clearly, this is a time of great uncertainty and the result of the referendum has thrown up numerous important issues. I hope you will forgive the lengthy explanation and analysis that I have written below, and I am grateful to everyone who got in touch to share their views with me.
I voted for the UK to remain a member of the EU and, as such, I am very disappointed by the outcome of the vote. I supported the “Remain” side because I believed it would be wrong to withdraw from the EU at a time of such great economic and political uncertainty – and my view has not changed since the result.
As you are aware, the referendum resulted in a 52% to 48% win for the “Leave” side, on a 72% turnout. Last year, I stood and won election on a manifesto that not only committed to holding the referendum but made an unequivocal commitment to honouring the verdict delivered by the country, and I reiterated this position both as a candidate and as an MP – difficult as it is, I believe it would be utterly dishonest of me to reverse my position because the side I supported did not win. The turnout of 72% represents the highest in a UK-wide vote since the 1992 general election, with over 33.5 million people voting – this was a great exercise in democracy and, as such, I believe I have to accept that the vote for “Leave” is a legitimate one.
I know that many people are now arguing for a re-run of the referendum, on the basis of the turnout or the suggestion that “Leave” voters now regret their decision, and I am aware of the well supported petition on this subject. Whilst the petition must of course be discussed in Parliament, MPs from all parties have made the point that it would be wrong to do as the petition asks and retrospectively change the rules requiring a higher turnout threshold – the Act of Parliament authorising the referendum set no turnout thresholds and I do not believe it would be either right or possible to implement them after the vote has taken place.
I understand the frustration of “Remain” voters, but as one of them, I am forced to consider what my response would have been to those decrying a “Remain” vote as illegitimate if my side of the argument had won by the same margin on the same turnout – and I cannot pretend that my reaction would have been anything other than a rejection of their suggestion to re-run the vote.
What saddens me most about the referendum result is that it has exposed a badly divided country and, though the way forward is far from clear, nothing is more important for the Government now than doing what it can to keep the people of this country united. Whilst I fully accept that the referendum does not legally bind the Government or Parliament to follow the will of the people, I strongly believe that nothing would divide our country more deeply than a decision by Parliament to reject the referendum result, such as by opposing the triggering of Article 50 – though it is far from clear whether MPs will get a vote on this at all. As a Member of Parliament, I am acutely conscious of the distrust and disconnect that millions of voters – perhaps especially those in areas that voted strongly for “Leave” – feel towards politicians, and I fear that an attempt by MPs to reject the people’s verdict would come to be regarded as a monumental betrayal that would entrench that division at a time when we absolutely must try to come together. This was a national referendum and not, as some have suggested, a consultative vote to inform MPs. Even if MPs were to vote as their constituencies did, and even if I as a “Remain” supporter voted against withdrawal, there would still be a clear vote to leave to the EU.
Nevertheless, the “Leave” side must accept that it did only win the vote narrowly, with 48% voting the other way, and though there is a mandate to leave the European Union, it does not have a clear mandate for anything else, and it is here that MPs can and must seek to influence what happens next as withdrawal is negotiated. I will not pretend that I have answers to all the questions that are arising, and it is right to stop and think before rushing ahead, but I am clear that the Government needs to prioritise the retention of strong trade links with the EU, clear and unequivocal protection of the rights of UK citizens in the EU and of EU citizens living and working in the UK, and support for areas like science that currently receive important funding from the EU.
Whilst I feel that I am duty bound to back the verdict delivered in the referendum, I am equally clear that the people have delivered a mandate for leaving the EU and that alone. The exact nature of our relationship with the EU needs to be debated and decided upon in the weeks and months ahead, and it is here that MPs and the people can exert considerable influence over the best way forward, not least in ensuring that the “Leave” side delivers on its campaign pledges, such as on increased funding for the NHS. Whatever is decided will clearly require the consent of the people in some way before being enacted and, as I have always said, I am committed to playing an active part in implementing the result in the best way possible for Twickenham and the whole country.
Many constituents have asked me who I will be supporting in the contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party and, therefore, who will become Prime Minister. Following the referendum, I believe we need a leader who can unite the country and navigate the right course in a period that will inevitably involve difficulty and uncertainty. I firmly believe that Theresa May is the right person for that job and for leading us through and beyond that period. Theresa has the competence and the experience to be a great Prime Minister, and I was pleased to vote for her in the ballots of Conservative MPs.
On a different but sadly related note, I want to make it clear that I completely condemn the racist vandalism and abuse directed against immigrants from Europe and elsewhere. People have legitimate concerns about immigration but there is nothing right about attacks against immigrants, the overwhelming majority of whom are law-abiding, decent people who contribute to our country. As someone who has worked in the NHS, I have seen first-hand the contribution that many immigrants make and I firmly believe we benefit from living in such a multicultural society. I sincerely regret the impact that the referendum result may have had on this.
A very useful meeting between local Science and Technology companies with Brexit Minister Robin Walker MP and Science and Technology Chair Stephen Metcalfe in Parliament today.