The Conservative MP switched from Leave to Remain. Now she hopes millions of voters will make the same journeyby Alex Dean / October 2, 2018 / Leave a comment
Ever since the 2016 EU referendum lots of MPs, particularly on the Conservative side, have been at pains to shed their Remainer reputations. Previously outspoken pro-Europeans now pretend they had nothing to do with “Stronger In” at all. Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid fight to prove their pro-Brexit credentials.
Far fewer have travelled in the opposite direction, from Leave to Remain.
But Sarah Wollaston is not your usual kind of Conservative. Having publicly backed Leave in the run-up to the 2016 vote, the MP for Totnes actually changed her mind mid-campaign. She has since become one of parliament’s most vocal campaigners for a “people’s vote.” Chair of the health select committee, she is widely respected in the Commons, and now uses her influence to call out the hard Brexiteers.
During our conversation at Conservative conference I found her in fighting spirit. Asked what she thought of Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s recent comparison of the EU to the Soviet Union, she shot back “it’s nonsense.” I asked whether she would stay in an increasingly pro-Brexit Tory Party, and she replied: “would I feel that an increasingly right-wing Conservative Party was one that I could stand on their manifesto at the next election? I’d need to see what it looked like but no I wouldn’t.”
MPs normally display unwavering loyalty to the party. But Wollaston’s priority now is the Remain campaign. What made her change her mind in 2016? What was going to come out of the Brexit mess currently engulfing parliament? And what were the prospects for voters taking the “Wollaston journey” in a second referendum?
“I started the 2016 campaign as what you might call a soft leave eurosceptic,” Wollaston said, “and the more I listened to the relentless evidence about the complications… I realised that I couldn’t possibly continue to advocate for Leave.”
“When they announced the £350m a week for the NHS, I knew that was nonsense and I was constantly saying to them I wouldn’t go on their bus or do any platform speeches for them.”
“So many people were saying to me, quite senior people within the Leave campaign, that they knew it was false… I thought ‘I just cannot continue to have anything to do with these people.’”
It went broader than that. The NHS is of particular importance for Wollaston, who worked as a clinician for 23 years. But the referendum wasn’t just about facts and figures: it spoke to our sense of who we are as a country. Wollaston seemed to identify with the liberal Remain side at this deeper level. “For me there was a growing realisiation that if I woke up on the day after the referendum and Britain had voted to leave, it wouldn’t feel to me like cause for celebration, it would feel like an extraordInary loss.”
Hunt’s comparison with the Soviet Union? “It’s nonsense.”
“I still feel that way… the very simplistic vision of Brexit that it would be the easiest deal in history, the rosy sunlit uplands picture that was presented to the public, we’re now seeing was completely unrealistic.” Talks with Europe are currently at deadlock.
The biggest danger now is a “no deal” outcome. This is being willed “by the ERG [the pro-Brexit European Research Group] and its head Jacob Rees-Mogg…. some of these people who are talking as if no deal would be absolutely fine. It would not be fine. It would have very very serious consequences indeed… we would be knowingly and deliberately inflicting economic pain.”
Another consequence could be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Is it fair to say politicians like Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson are undermining the Irish peace process? “I believe so,” she says—a pretty serious accusation for one Conservative MP to make about another. Johnson’s hard Brexit speech today will have done little to dispel concerns.
Wollaston is right that Brexit presents grave threats. But what should be done? For her, the best way to scrub out the first referendum is with another. “Going back to the medical side of things, we asked people two years ago whether or not they wished to start the process of negotiating to leave, and it would be akin in my view to someone consenting to major surgery two years in advance without them knowing whether they’re consenting to have a leg removed or a few toes. And I think what we would all expect when we had major surgery is that someone sets out what the operation is, what all the risks and benefits are, and then you can decide whether or not you proceed.”
A second ballot might make sense in principle. But how would it happen?
“Of course for any referendum it needs to go through the House of Commons, and should we find ourselves in a no deal situation, I think it’s quite possible that some MPs would take the view that’s it’s so serious, we would be voting actively to have a very major negative impact… I mean the ripples would spread out very widely, and I still hope that parliament at that point would actually be wanting to check there was informed consent for that.” If the PM secures her Chequers deal then Wollaston would still prefer a second vote but is less sure parliament would back her. Any referendum should have the option to Remain, she said.
Would the EU let us extend the talks? “They would be prepared to extend the Article 50 process if it were to allow for a second referendum.” And they would want us back? “They’ve said as much. Repeatedly. And we haven’t left yet.”
It’s one thing securing another vote—it’s another to actually win it. How could the campaign convince Leavers from 2016? “I think we need to do a better job of actually setting out the benefits. It was a shame the last referendum was such a negative campaign which didn’t spell out the benefits, particularly for young people, of our membership.”
There is so much uncertainty swirling round that no one can say what will happen next. But if the Conservative Party continues down its hard Brexit path and MPs like Wollaston start leaving—or are forced out—that will certainly leave it worse off. There aren’t enough politicians at the moment willing to change their mind when they see the evidence.
There was one final question I wanted to ask. A prominent Remainer, active on Twitter, a woman: Wollaston must have faced some awful abuse these past few years.
“Massively. But if you’re not afraid to rattle your cages and put your head above the parapet, then you shouldn’t be in this job.”
“I’m afraid it’s not going to stop me.”