Brexit: An Op-Ed

As parliament looks set to reject the May deal tomorrow, here's why it is fulfilling its democratic remit.

Following on from my article of 8 January (and subsequent updates thereto), it now appears more or less inevitable that UK Prime Minister Theresa May will suffer a heavy defeat in the House of Commons tomorrow. All the opposition MPs are expected to vote against her deal plus her Irish coalition partner, the DUP, and, most importantly, at least 100 members of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. It appears that the Tory rebels are more likely to be drawn from the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ie the MPs who were behind last month's failed vote of confidence) to judge from a speech she is due to make today when she will reportedly claim that if her deal is rejected no Brexit is more likely than a hard Brexit.

So, please forgive a little self-indulgence on my part in what follows as I look put all the hyperbole to one side and dissect what Theresa May is proposing to say today based on the link above to the BBC's report of this morning.

First, let's keep in mind that the 2016 referendum was advisory, NOT binding, to parliament, a fact which all the pro-Brexit crowd seem conveniently to have forgotten.

Second, even if the referendum outcome were mandatory it did not specify anything about the UK's future relationship with the EU, let alone majority support for the May deal.

Third, when an overwhelming majority of MPs voted to trigger Article 50 in March 2017 (on which point Mrs May is correct) for sure it was really not very smart of them given that the government had at that time no clear plan or policy or preferred outcome from the negotiating process. But they could not reasonably have anticipated just how incompetent (by general consensus, not just my view!) Mrs May would be thereafter in the handling of that process AND negotiating with her own party.

Fourth, Mrs May has deliberately delayed putting her deal to a vote in an effort to put a gun to MPs' heads to support it and, in so doing, has repeatedly tried to deny parliament its full say. In a representative democracy, which the UK is, how democratic is that? And especially when (as I have said repeatedly) one of the main stated objectives of the Brexiteers was/is to return sovereignty to the UK parliament?

Fifth, suspending Article 50 pending further debate in parliament on the UK's future relationship with the EU and then implementing Brexit accordingly (be it the May deal, 'Norway', hard Brexit or whatever) would NOT be a betrayal of the outcome of the 2016 referendum but parliamentarians doing what they are actually elected and paid to do, ie implementing 'the will of the people' responsibly.

Sixth, in the end if one must have plebiscites (which remain anathema in a representative democracy in my view but...) what is undemocratic about giving the electorate a second say once the terms on offer are clear - and especially given the lack of clarity over what "Brexit' meant in the first referendum?

Seventh, personally, although I would guess she is only saying this to try to scare some of the European Research Group people into supporting her deal, I hope Mrs May is correct that if parliament votes it down no Brexit is the most likely consequence. BUT I am not at all sure that there is a clear factual basis upon which to reach such a conclusion (which also blatantly contradicts her past claims that not voting for the deal meant hard Brexit - although she may be justified in changing her mind on that after last week's two defeats for the government).

Eighth, opinion polls have told us repeatedly over many years and still tell us that for the vast majority of the UK electorate the EU is low on the list of political priorities. In truth, it is only really a priority for a relative small group of (largely elderly) Tory party members in England and a bunch of English nationalist Tory MPs plus a few others. Now, I fully accept that immigration (on which Mrs May, despite voting remain, has long been very hardline) is a priority for many UK voters - and probably the biggest single cause of a vote to leave the EU. And herein lies a big dilemma for any government having been unwise enough to call a plebiscite for which public demand was minimal (and then mess up the remain campaign - for which Mrs May cannot be blamed). BUT, even taking this into account, I fail to see that, when public opinion is so evenly split, a second referendum in the light of the 2019 facts which resulted in a remain outcome and the UK not leaving would be any more divisive than exiting, especially given the economic consequences of leaving (which even the hard Brexiteers generally admit will not be good in the short- to medium-term).

Finally, if there is another referendum it is certainly possible that 'the people' will again vote to leave - and, as I noted in my 8 January article, especially if the Remain campaign messed up again as badly as it did in 2016, which is far from impossible!

Alastair Newton

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