The Future of Brexit: Lord Andrew Adonis at The Cambridge Union

Joseph Hearn 23 October 2019
Image Credit: Flixr

Having just delivered a resounding debate victory alongside Richard Burgon, Lord Adonis was in buoyant mood. In a heated and packed Union chamber, the Labour pair had argued fervently against having confidence in the government. But where Burgon, the Shadow Justice Secretary, had emphasised the austerity and chaos wrought by successive Conservative administrations, Adonis had focused on the absolute need for a second Brexit referendum. This contrast in focus acts as an interesting microcosm of the broader Labour Party.

Lord Adonis’ commitment to Remain does not sit comfortably in a Labour Party largely controlled by Jeremy Corbyn and his close allies. The Labour leader’s equivocation over Brexit policy has frustrated many Remain supporters in the party, exacerbating existing rifts. Clearly, there are vast and longstanding differences in view between Adonis and his leader. Given that he had just argued a case of no confidence in the government, I wanted to know whether Adonis had any confidence in his own party’s leader.

Answering with a smile, Adonis chose instead to emphasise his faith in the party as a whole: ‘The Labour Party is a coalition and I’m confident that the coalition we’ve got, which is a coalition of the left and the centre-left, will enable us both to end Brexit, to do so democratically and to have a big reform programme afterwards.’

Somewhat hopefully, Adonis argued that ‘it is only with Jeremy Corbyn that we will end Brexit’. Having finally backed a second referendum after much tempestuous debate, fresh party infighting has erupted over whether to back Remain in such a vote. Pushing further, I asked Adonis about Corbyn’s own, oft-questioned commitment to the Remain cause in 2016.

Perhaps with one eye on his current fight to be selected by grassroot Labour members as the parliamentary candidate for Vauxhall, he replied gracefully:

‘Well, we all have questions to answer about 2016 … I only made one speech in that referendum campaign. I thought, like most of my Labour colleagues, that there would be a majority for staying in the EU. And we found it distasteful the idea of campaigning alongside Cameron and Osborne, the architects of austerity. So, we all need to take our share of the blame for what happened in 2016 and I take my share of it too.’

“…So, we all need to take our share of the blame for what happened in 2016 and I take my share of it too.”

Keeping the focus on criticising the Conservatives, Adonis added, ‘Of course it wasn’t our fault the referendum. It was the Cameron referendum; it wasn’t a Labour party referendum.’ Whilst it was a Conservative government that introduced the referendum legislation to the Commons in 2015, it is important to note that 206 Labour MPs voted for holding the referendum.

Going on, he claimed that Labour’s policy is ‘the only way through this crisis that is credible.’ Where others have been unclear about what that policy is, Adonis was unequivocal: ‘referendum, remain, reform.’

However, given that backing Remain in a future referendum was explicitly rejected in a crunch vote at the recent Labour Party conference, Adonis’ policy comment appears to have been a unilateral one.

That said, his own commitment to Remain is clear, arguing that a ‘hard Brexit … would be hugely destructive not just to our relations with Europe, but to our economy and society, and quite possibly to the whole integrity of the UK. It could lead to both Northern Ireland and Scotland choosing to leave the UK.’

“a hard Brexit…would be hugely destructive not just to our relations with Europe, but to our economy and society, and quite possibly to the whole integrity of the UK…”

Curiously, for a man who has been a Secretary of State and recently positioned himself to the forefront of political discussion, were Lord Adonis to be voted in as MP for Vauxhall it would mark his first successful election. I ended our interview by suggesting that his own lack of electoral success left him vulnerable to questions about his legitimacy and authority, especially when campaigning for a second EU referendum.

Whilst accepting his position as an unelected member of the House of Lords, Adonis argued that ‘in a democracy, everyone has a duty to speak out’ and that his views echo those frequently heard in the Commons. Keeping his friendly demeanour, he added:

‘Unless those of us who committed to the cause of a second referendum hadn’t started speaking out really loudly a year ago, we wouldn’t be in the position now where Brexit is on the brink of collapse and we have the prospect of a referendum.’

Thanking the Union with his customary courtesy, Lord Adonis headed off back to London, ready to face a fresh round of campaign engagements. The energy with which he has campaigned for a second referendum is unquestionable; whether it has been in vain may well be decided by Parliament over the next few days.