Peter Bye

It’s now more than one year since the UK referendum on EU membership, and the vote to leave. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, invoked Article 50 of the Treaty of Rome at the end of March this year and then, out of the blue, called a general election. Her intention was to get a bigger majority to reinforce her position and, some said, to be able to fend off the most Eurosceptic fringes of the Conservative Party.

Mrs May’s election decision spectacularly misfired: far from getting a big majority, a small overall Conservative majority was converted into a minority. After extensive haggling, Mrs May reached an agreement with the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland), to support a Conservative government on issues of supply and confidence. In the meantime, the clock on Brexit has been ticking since the end of March and the Article 50 decision.

Mrs May is now fatally weakened. The splits in the Conservative Party are all too clear, as the noises about leaks from the Cabinet this past weekend have revealed[1]. As a result, we still don’t appear to have formed a clear plan for life after Brexit. Negotiations have started with the EU, focussing on the status of EU citizens in the UK and vice versa, as well as the outstanding amount owed by the UK, the so-called divorce settlement. But the big, unresolved issues are around trade arrangements if the UK leaves the Single Market and Customs Union, as the hard-line people in the Conservative Party want. Wishful thinking abounds, as it has from before the referendum, about getting most of the EU membership benefits without the cost. Any view to the contrary is simply dismissed as negative and ‘talking Britain down’.

Although the Labour Party came second, the party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, did much better than most of the pundits expected. Indeed, Mr Corbyn has become something of a cult figure. However, his views on the EU and Brexit remain unclear; he has avoided making comments, possibly because he does not really like the EU. During the debate on the Queen’s Speech, which opened the new parliament, he had an opportunity to put membership of the Single Market on the table; a motion proposed by some Labour MPs had raised the possibility. Mr Corbyn instructed Labour MPs to abstain on the vote. This is amusing as he spent over 30 years as a backbench MP voting against his own party more than 500 times.

Although the likelihood of a softer Brexit has increased, the odds are that the UK will still leave the EU. This is in spite of the fact that a majority of MPs supported remain and believe that leaving the EU will harm the UK in the long term. We thus have the depressing spectacle of our elected representatives doing what many of them believe is against the country’s best interest.

Trying to form a coherent party policy for the Brexit direction is difficult for the two main parties, especially the Labour Party. The Conservative Party vote split 61 to 39 in favour of Leave; the Labour Party vote was almost the opposite at 65 to 35 in favour of remain[2]. It’s therefore impossible to come up with a policy that satisfies everyone, as the voting patterns varied widely over the country. In Mr Corbyn’s constituency (Islington North) and the adjacent one (Islington South and Finsbury, also with a Labour MP), over 75% voted to remain. But In Labour constituencies in other parts of the country the vote went the other way.

I believe it is time for MPs to stand up for representative democracy, as I have argued before. Many MPs are reluctant to attempt to overturn the referendum result and remain in the EU, something they could actually do, but they respect what they see as the will of the people. However, they are certainly in a position to force through a much softer agreement than the hard-line approach wanted by the more obsessive Brexiteers.

There is no reason that a second referendum could not be held to put the resulting agreement terms to the public for their opinion. The 2016 referendum only asked the public to vote on remain or leave. It provided no information whatsoever on the nature of the subsequent relationship between the UK and the EU. If the public did not like the terms of the agreement, they could say so and either force another negotiation or even opt to remain in the EU.

Taking this approach would require MPs to be much more independent of the party line – if there is one – and do what they believe to be the right for the UK.

Notes and sources

[1] See for example http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/07/16/exclusive-philip-hammond-deliberately-trying-frustrate-brexit/

[2] For voting patterns across parties, age groups and education levels, see https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/06/27/how-britain-voted/

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