The countdown to our departure from the European Union has started.
Some are deeply sad, some are extremely glad while many are worried because no one yet knows the destination of the journey.

Yes, the British people narrowly voted last year to leave but none of us opted for a particular alternative to EU membership. The Prime Minister, who is a hostage of her hardline backbenchers, has plumped for what could be a hard Brexit and the danger is we leave without a deal and have to rely on inferior World Trade Organisation arrangements. I also fear the PM without a mandate will try to smuggle in a new economic model based on less protection for the many and less tax for the few.

The government must be held to account on its proposals and decisions and put under pressure in the complex journey out of the EU. Labour MPs also voted to embark on that journey, in line with the referendum, but our Shadow Brexit chief, Keir Starmer has provided a set of principles or signposts for the government to follow.

They stress the need for a strong and collaborative relationship with the EU, delivering the 'exact same benefits' we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union, as the Government's Brexit chief David Davis promised.

Starmer also advocates fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities, defending our rights and protections and preventing a race to the bottom, and protecting national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime, as well as delivering for all regions and nations of the UK.

That last point is vital in the North East where we have long felt neglected by London and have a Prime Minister with a tin ear for those outside the south east. We also need decent solutions to the border problem between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic for the sake of peace and for EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU.

The UK cannot be ignored as a European power and I feel sure our EU and Nato partners know this although it is currently concealed by brinkmanship before a complex bout of bargaining begins. We may get a long-term deal that works for us and the EU, which remains our biggest trading and security partner. But we may not.

We exercised our right to self-determination just as we did in 1975 when we decided to share sovereignty with the then Common Market. But we may need to make sure we don't cut our nose off to spite our face.
If Tory Brexit means we will be poorer and less safe we should retain the right as a free people to exercise a sovereign decision through a general election on the matter or another referendum.

Some will protest we are being forced to keep voting until we vote the right way. But what is wrong with the people being able to judge the results of the negotiations in two years time? A further vote could show the British people are in charge but if it comes to that we cannot have another knife edge vote.

If we simply reversed the result of the referendum and decided to remain in the EU with the same margin of just over half a million people or roughly a thousand people in each constituency the issue would spark a neverendum and debilitating bitterness and division for maybe decades. Any new referendum would require a higher threshold of maybe two thirds for staying in the EU. That would put the issue to bed firmly and definitely, either way.

But let's first see how the negotiations proceed and not allow Brexit to obscure or obstruct overdue and fundamental reforms in our economy, education system, workplaces and public services whether we stay in or leave the EU.

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