There were heated exchanges as MP David Lammy and UKIP city councillor John Whitby took part in a special Brexit debate in Peterborough ahead of next week's historic vote in Parliament.
Mr Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, who attended The King's School when he was younger, joined Peterborough councillor Mr Whitby at the South Grove Community Centre in Woodston yesterday, nine days before MPs vote on Theresa May's EU withdrawal agreement.
More than 100 Peterborough residents were in attendance as Cllr Whitby, speaking on behalf of the Brexiteers, said: "There is nothing wrong in principle with trading with other countries so that we all benefit from that trade; but that is not what the EU has become, and I am not even convinced now that it was ever meant to be that way.
“Instead we have a situation in this country where laws and decisions are being made for us by people who we do not know, who do not understand or care for our culture in the same way that we do, and what concerns me the most is that whenever we object to the rules being imposed upon us, the EU simply ignores it.
“I don’t want to live like that and neither did 52 per cent of the people of this nation when they voted to leave the EU in 2016. But what I am most deeply concerned about is that the Brexit voted for has not been delivered as it was promised, and that Prime Minister Theresa May will now never provide this nation with the democracy that it deserves.”
Mr Lammy, speaking on behalf of Remain, said: “I could have worked with the idea of Brexit if that is what the Prime Minister was delivering, but it isn’t. So, while I disagree with Cllr Whitby on some fundamental issues about sovereignty and immigration and culture, I do say that what this country is getting is not the Brexit it voted for.
“This is why I find myself agreeing with Conservative MPs such as Dominic Grieve, Ken Clarke, Anna Soubry and others because we had worked so hard over the past 40 years to secure a really important deal with the EU – we were top table, right up there with France and Germany making the decisions that mattered after the mess of Suez, the disaster of the 1970s and the economic division of the 1980s and 90s.
“After two horrendous European wars we had begun to come together as one, first in the EEC (European Economic Community) and then in the European Union. So let me state categorically where I am fundamentally different to Cllr Whitby – I have no problem with pooling our sovereignty in Britain. We don’t lose control of our sovereignty by pooling it with the Europeans, we gain control by pooling sovereignty.”
The floor was opened to questions, with one woman asking: “What do you understand by Theresa May’s comments that if we don’t vote for ‘her’ Brexit, we will not get a Brexit at all – what do you think she means by that?”
Cllr Whitby said: “The answer is that Parliament could, if it wanted to, simply cut up Article 50 and the EU have said that they would simply forget the whole thing. Quite what it would cost us for them to just ‘forget it’ is anybody’s guess.
“But the reason we have so much argument and angst in this country is that after the 2016 referendum, one side of the vote – the Remoaners – simply couldn’t or wouldn’t accept defeat, and they have been campaigning to reverse that decision ever since. If the people – especially those in Parliament – who had voted Remain had said ‘okay we’ve lost, now let’s get behind delivering the best possible Brexit we can because that is what the British people have voted for’, then we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in now. And Therese May was one of them”.
Another lady in the audience asked: “What will really happen to our economy when we leave the EU?”
Mr Lammy said: “On the day that we ‘crash out’ of the EU there is every possibility that our economy will, in the short term at least, receive a boost of some kind, but I certainly don’t think it will last and most economists agree with me.
“I worry about Theresa May’s vision of Britain post-Brexit with this deal she is tabling. It’s a Britain that could very well become the 51st State of the United States." This prompted some members of the audience to clap while others booed and shouted the MP down.
Mr Lammy continued: "If Trump comes looking for a trade deal he will do it when we are out on our feet and down on our knees, and they’ve already tried to get their hands on our NHS in the past, that is well known. When Britain is weak, what happens? We give them our trade on their terms and give away our NHS, and it’s all over from there.
“For those who are worried about free movement of people’s post-Brexit, when we go to negotiate a trade deal with India, what will be the first thing that they want in exchange? Visas of course, for all their people. We will be weak. We won’t be able to resist. It’s the same with the Chinese. They will want visas for trade deals – anybody who has been to Sydney, Australia, will know what I am saying is true.”
Asked the main question of whether they thought the Prime Minister would be able to get the Brexit vote through the Commons on December 11, Mr Lammy said: “No chance. I really don’t think she has any chance of getting it through, and at the moment she is saying ‘no Brexit’ as an option to scare some of her own party into supporting her.
“Yes we could simply tear up Article 50 and forget the whole thing, but actually that is a rather more difficult thing to achieve democratically in this country than you might think. I think the only way to get it through is to somehow give it back to the people to let them ultimately make that decision.
“My view is that we cannot undermine democracy with more democracy – that is the point of having general elections from time to time. You go to the people, they make a decision and you accept that decision. I accept that largely the will of my party is out of favour at the moment, that is the democratic mandate that we have and I accept that.
“I am deeply, deeply concerned however about how this one issue has divided Britain at the moment. This is the most divided the people of this nation have been in my lifetime, and even in this room today we have seen a micro-version of Britain, with people passionate in very differing ways about this issue.
“It fills me with fear that my mixed-heritage children are growing up in such a divided country, where the rhetoric surrounding race and difference is as loud as I have ever known it to be. In the end, human beings have way more in common with each other than is different. There will be a lot of work that must go into the healing process; but the basis for that, in the end, is a democratic vote, and after the protracted debate that we’ve now had for the last two and a half years, I hope that can be a guide for moving forward.”