How long will Parliament ignore the 48%?
by Brendan Donnelly, Director, The Federal Trust
David Jones, the Minister for Brexit, assured the House of Commons this week that it would have the opportunity to vote on the treaty negotiated by Mrs. May’s government to bring about British withdrawal from the European Union. This assurance provoked mixed reactions. It helped to suppress a brewing Conservative revolt, but was widely criticized on the Opposition benches as giving no meaningful choice to the House of Commons, since the Minister had made clear that Brexit would anyway proceed, irrespective of the outcome of the Parliamentary vote. Both the welcome and the criticism for Mr. Jones were equally illuminating. Neither his supporters nor his critics seemed to recall that Parliament has the right to decide for itself whether it wishes to vote on the Brexit treaty and that it is up to Parliament to decide what the consequences of any such vote might be. Parliament does not need to be dependent upon more or less tasty morsels from the governmental table furnished by Mr. Davis. The willingness of many Parliamentarians to subsist on a constitutional diet determined by the government well reflects the indecent haste with which they have rejected (at least for the short term) the chance offered it by the Supreme Court to play an autonomous role in the UK’s proposed withdrawal from the European Union.
The government’s claim that the referendum of 23rd June 2016 is a sufficient moral and political basis for the Conservative Party to take the UK out of the European Union is a familiar one, as are counter-arguments about the misleading nature of the referendum campaign, its doubtful franchise and the advisory nature of the vote itself. A new element came to the fore however in the speech of Mr. Jones, namely that once Article 50 is triggered Parliament’s options reduce to two, that of accepting the terms negotiated by the government for Brexit or that of rejecting them and leaving the European Union in the most disruptive fashion possible, without any agreement. This government has in six months thus transformed itself from the administration committed to making sure that “Brexit works” into the administration committed to making sure that Brexit happens at all costs.
It is true that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty encourages towards the end of the two year negotiating period the sharpening of pressure on the seceding country by stipulating that it will in any case leave the Union after two years, with or without a formal agreement. It is equally true that legal argument continues about the revocability or otherwise of the Article 50 notification. But it is simple procedural hocus-pocus to claim that Parliament cannot if it wishes reject the Brexit terms negotiated by the Conservative government and instruct the resumption of negotiations to obtain a more satisfactory arrangement. If Parliament can bring itself to reject the negotiated Brexit terms, it will then be for Mrs. May’s government and for our EU partners to decide how to react to this new development. It can confidently be predicted that our EU partners will wish to be helpful if they see a real opportunity to soften or even prevent altogether the damaging consequences of Brexit.
Equally predictable would be the first reaction of the British government in these circumstances. Its first impulse would certainly be to ignore the Parliamentary vote and press ahead with leaving the European Union without any agreement, two years after the triggering of Article 50. Given the movement of opinion within the Conservative Party over the past fifteen years, and particularly since 23rd June, it is difficult to see any Conservative government being able to tolerate the disruption of its Brexit plans by anything as trivial as a dissident Parliamentary majority. Important elements of the Conservative Party anyway favour what they call a “clean break” with the European Union, summarized in the nihilistic slogan that “no agreement is better than a bad agreement.” In his remarks to the House of Commons this week, Mr. Jones was clearly pointing in the direction of such intransigence.
It is however far from inconceivable that in eighteen months or two years time a majority can be assembled in the House of Commons against the terms of the Brexit treaty. It may well be that by 2019 negative economic consequences of an impending Brexit will have manifested themselves in the way they have not until now, the Labour Party has adopted a more coherent and credible approach on this issue and British public opinion is more aware of the risks implicit in British withdrawal from the European Union. All these changes will form a more favourable backdrop for Parliamentarians to vote in 2018 or 2019 for what most of them anyway believe to be the long-term interests of their country rather than for their own short-term interests or those of their political party. The crucial and unresolved question for the future of Brexit and indeed the future of British politics is whether the House of Commons, having once hypothetically assembled a majority against the Brexit terms presented by the Conservative government will be prepared to take the next logical step and overthrow that Conservative government if it refuses to heed the Parliamentary vote.
In her White Paper on leaving the European Union, Mrs. May claimed to rely on the “strength and support of 65 million people willing us to make it happen.” Views may differ as to whether such sub-messianic rhetoric is in a democracy sinister or simply absurd. In any case, it bears no relationship to reality. The vast majority of those voters on 23rd June who wished to remain in the European Union are very far from supporting Mrs. May in her attempt to “make Brexit happen.” They are entirely unreconciled to what many of them regard as the outcome of a dishonest referendum campaign, called and fought simply in the interests of the Conservative Party and won by a narrow majority comprising only 37% of those entitled to vote. They are horrified by what they regard as the unrepresentative spinelessness of Parliamentarians who have allowed themselves, with few honourable exceptions, to be cowed into accepting without amendment a Bill allowing Mrs. May to trigger Article 50. It is wishful thinking on the part of the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties to imagine that they can indefinitely ignore such a broad and motivated swathe of British public opinion. If Mrs. May’s government is still in power two years after the Article 50 notification takes place, Britain will leave the European Union, contrary to the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Parliamentarians. This is much more brutal an overriding of Parliamentary sovereignty than anything perpetrated by forty years of membership in the European Union.
The resentment against their MPs is particularly strong among many Labour supporters, who found unpleasant irony in the imposition of a three-line whip on this issue by the serially rebellious Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour Party finds itself in the paradoxical position of having among the constituencies it represents many of those that voted by the largest majorities to remain in the EU and many of those that voted by similar majorities to leave. As long as Jeremy Corbyn remains leader of the Labour Party, this heterogeneity seems likely to be a recipe for confusion and ineffectiveness in the Party’s European policy. As a prominent critic of the European Union over many years, Mr. Corbyn is unlikely to be willing or able to satisfy the majority of his Party and voters who were in the “Remain” camp, many of them fervently so. Nor should it be supposed that the Conservative Party is without its residual sympathizers for EU membership. There are important strands of Conservative opinion, particularly in the City and business, which are becoming increasingly uneasy at the prospect of the UK’s renouncing the European internal market and Customs Union even before the Brexit negotiations have begun.
If the Liberal Democrats had not been so reduced as a Parliamentary force in the General Election of 2015, they might have had some hopes of functioning in the present environment as the core of centrist, pro-European grouping in Parliament. Given their limited numbers, any such prospect seems unlikely, despite the reinvigoration they derived from the Richmond Park by-election. If there is to be a restructuring of the British party political landscape to prevent Brexit, it will have to derive in the first instance from the Labour Party and its internal contradictions. These internal contradictions are genuine and unlikely to diminish in the foreseeable future. That the Parliamentary Labour Party should be led by someone who enjoys so little confidence from his fellow MPs is not a politically sustainable situation in the medium term, and forthcoming by-elections may well exacerbate the position. The Labour Party remains even today deeply seared by the events of the 1980s, when the splitting of the left into the traditional Labour Party and the SDP made easier the Conservative elections victories of that decade. In the 1980s it was unilateral disarmament that precipitated the split between Labour and the SDP. Brexit is a decision with at least as far-reaching consequences as nuclear disarmament. There is nothing inherently implausible in the idea that Europe will thirty years later be the issue pulling Labour apart and opening the way for a reconfiguration of British politics. To those who say that the British electoral system makes impossible the establishment of viable new parties, the Scottish National Party provides a telling counter- example. A breakaway pro-European party entitled “Labour for London” and standing only in London would have fertile ground in which to sow its message. Nor would a pro-European party entitled “Conservatives for London” be without real prospects of Parliamentary representation through by-elections or a General Election. If votes for a new party can be geographically concentrated, the peculiarities of the British electoral system can help rather than hinder these new parties.
The current future of British politics inevitably recalls Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, setting limits to the precision with which the movement of a particle can be determined. All the above analysis has been predicated on the assumption that the Brexit negotiations triggered by Article 50 will continue for perhaps eighteen months and then come to a conclusion which can be put to the House of Commons. But this assumption is an obvious candidate for contradiction by events. The negotiation of any remotely plausible settlement of the divorce terms for British exit from the European Union will involve the payment by the British Exchequer of many billions of euros, a fact that has not been sufficiently acknowledged in the British European debate. Even more than issues relating to the single market and the Customs Union, our partners will be determined to obtain what they regard as a satisfactory settlement on these budgetary questions: any concessions made to the British in this area will lead directly to higher contributions from themselves to the EU budget. On the other hand, Mrs. May insisted in her speech of 17th January that the days of substantial British contributions to the Union are over. The pressure from her Party to minimize European payments in the divorce settlement will therefore be immense. Unless the budgetary aspects of the British divorce from the European Union are settled reasonably early in the negotiations in a way acceptable to our partners, there will be no overall agreement to put to Parliament in 2018 or 2019. It may well be that Parliamentarians are confronted sooner than they expect with an unwelcome choice, that of accepting the hardest and most disruptive of exits for the United Kingdom from the European Union; or of affirming by their dissenting votes that no mandate whatsoever exists for such an outcome. If as few dissenting Parliamentarians can then be found as voted this week against the triggering of Article 50, it will throw grave doubt upon the future of representative democracy in this country. Mrs. Thatcher’s warnings against the perils of referendums will be well on the way to being vindicated.