This article, written by John Penrose MP, was originally posted in The Telegraph.
“Just answer the b****y question!” The heckler was a Conservative Party member, irritated at a candidate who wasn’t answering crisply enough at one of the leadership hustings. But it could have been anyone at home, yelling at the radio or the telly as yet another politician, from any party you care to name, twisted and turned to avoid giving a straight answer.
On the scale of occupational karma, politicians rank somewhere below bankers and estate agents, and only just above pond life in public esteem. And if your response to that is to ask ‘hang on; which pond?’ you aren’t alone. Giving a straight answer to a straight question will matter more than ever this autumn, when the biggest Brexit question of all will crystallise at last.
By then, it will be pretty clear whether we’re going to get a negotiated deal which Parliament and Brussels will both accept. That’s still the best and simplest way out but, if we don’t, the choice is suddenly very stark: either no deal, or no Brexit.
The heckler will get his wish, because politicians will finally have to give straight answers: will you rescind article 50, or leave without a deal? There will be no hiding places, no fudge and no spin. It’s about time. After three years, politicians are running out of road. The public are royally fed up with the way squabbling legislators have let Brexit drag on.
We’ve had indicative votes, meaningful votes, three different leaving dates and, next week, a new Prime Minister, but we’re still in limbo. People aren’t impressed. The elections in May were a punch to the political establishment’s stomach. A message that we need to get this done, or else. We aren’t there yet.
Most people, including me, are somewhere in the middle: we think leaving the EU with a sensible deal is the best option, but we’d reluctantly accept ‘no deal’ if the negotiations collapse and it’s the only alternative to not leaving at all.
That’s because, even though lots of us originally voted ‘remain’ in the referendum three years ago, we believe the country took a democratic decision and we’ve got a moral duty to honour it. The only question should be how we leave the EU, not if. But, of course, there are other people who see it differently.
On one side there’s a well-organised group of remainers who simply don’t want Brexit to happen at all. And on the other are the Brexit purists who think ‘no-deal’ is the best option because it’s the only truly clean break from Brussels.
Which shouldn’t be a problem, really. We’re a free country after all and, even though you or I may disagree strongly with the other Brexit tribes views, they’re totally entitled to hold them. That’s what democracy is for, right? Yes absolutely. But in return for us respecting other people’s rights to hold a different opinion, they owe everybody a straight answer to a straight question. Because, at the moment, there’s a sizeable fourth Brexit tribe to add to the other three, which even involves several cabinet ministers.
They say they don’t want ‘no deal’, but they won’t explain what they’d do if, in spite of everyone’s best efforts, a sensible negotiated deal simply can’t be found. What then? Would they revoke the referendum decision and stay in the EU after all, or honour it even if it meant leaving with no deal? It isn’t good enough to say ‘I’d hold another referendum, but I’m neutral about the result’. That’s piffle; everyone knows the People’s Vote campaign supports Remain.
Nor is it good enough to be vague. By giving half-answers, everyone assumes they’re really a camouflaged, fifth-column part of the ‘remainer’ tribe, trying to stop Brexit from happening but unwilling to say so publicly. Whatever they really are, we haven’t got time for this rubbish. We shouldn’t have to guess.
It’s time for politicians to come clean. If someone thinks we should remain in the EU, they should come out and say so honestly, explaining why they want to ignore the referendum result rather than pretending to be something they’re not.
So the next time you hear a politician saying they don’t want ‘no-deal’ but then dodging questions about what they’d do if a negotiated deal doesn’t work, don’t let them get away with it. Call them out. Confront their fudge and spin. Ask them the crucial question again and again and again, like the heckler at the leadership hustings, until they come clean.
Because, if they’re an honest politician (yes, there are plenty), they won’t mind, and you won’t have to ask more than once. Or even to yell at the telly.