John Baron MP provides us with his analysis of the latest political revelations.
It should never be forgotten that the vote to leave the European Union in 2016 remains the biggest democratic mandate for any policy in our history. This fact ought to be at the forefront of the minds of those who are now working to hamper the Government’s efforts to lead us out of the EU by the end of this month.
The Prime Minister is correctly maintaining possession of the narrative that he and the Conservative Party are trying to deliver on the referendum. The opposition in Parliament by the other parties to his improved proposals as a basis for a deal reinforce this narrative – and that is why it was important on Thursday that the Conservative Party’s initial response was to support the proposals.
There is no doubt that remainers have their dander up at the moment. Flush from their success at taking control of Commons business and passing the Benn Act (also known, for good reason, as the ‘Surrender Act’), their spirits have been boosted still further by the success of the legal actions to overturn the Government’s decision to prorogue Parliament.
Yet appearances can be deceptive: the Government clearly believes the Benn Act is in some way legally defective, and the Supreme Court judgement, though no doubt embarrassing for the Government, merely returns Parliament to the same situation it found itself in on 9th September.
The members of the Supreme Court, quite rightly, threw down the gauntlet to Parliament to make whatever use of the next weeks of unexpected sitting that it wishes. Given that Parliament has now been sitting for almost a fortnight with very little to show for it, the Supreme Court judgement does seem to have been a victory of process over substance – albeit with the effect of establishing the principle that the judiciary can now be drawn into deeply political territory. We may live to regret this constitutional innovation.
As was the situation before the non-prorogation, the Prime Minister is clear that the Government is determined to get the UK out of the EU by 31st October – preferably with a deal, but with no deal if one can not be agreed. However, this clarity is finally being matched by those ranged against the Prime Minister. Increasingly, it is obvious that these people are less concerned about the manner of our departure from the EU and more concerned with stopping our departure altogether.
This clarity has been a long time coming. Before the referendum, and indeed immediately after it, the vast majority of remainers were adamant that, whatever the decision, they would respect the democratic result and implement it accordingly. This line was repeated over the 2017 General Election, especially by the Labour Party, whose manifesto sections on Brexit were essentially identical to the Conservatives’ offering – ending free movement by leaving the Single Market, and running an independent trade policy by leaving the Customs Union. This encouraged many ‘leave’ voters to support Jeremy Corbyn’s party, safe in the knowledge that his party would honour its promises to get us out of the EU.
However, this began to change when the EU Withdrawal Act came before Parliament in the autumn of 2017. With opposition support, remainers raised concerns about ‘dictatorial’ Henry VIII clauses, which were – and remain – perfectly standard and normal aspects of legislation. This escalated into defeating the Government into accepting a ‘meaningful vote’, thereby creating a new hurdle for any deal to clear – even if I must acknowledge that as a Brexiteer opponent of the Withdrawal Agreement, I also used these meaningful votes to oppose a fundamentally bad deal.
The Liberal Democrats emerge with more credit than many remainers, as they have at least long marketed themselves as Brexit sceptics. However their true colours have recently been shown as their ambition of a second ‘People’s Vote’ to overturn the result of the previous people’s vote has given way to their preferred option of simply revoking Article 50 outright. Absurdly they claim after revocation the country would forget about Brexit in favour of other priorities – choosing to ignore that a majority of voters would have had their wishes discounted.
The Labour Party’s many Brexit positions are legendary in their obtuseness. Having initially supported Brexit, the party’s policy appears set for a second referendum, with many in the party, senior MPs and membership alike, wanting the party to campaign to remain. As recently set out by Emily Thornberry on Question Time, Labour’s policy is to renegotiate a Brexit deal with the EU, which would then be put back to voters in a second referendum during which the Labour Party would campaign for ‘remain’, against the deal that they themselves had negotiated.
Not to be outdone, the Scottish National Party is campaigning for two second referendums – one on EU membership, and one on Scottish independence. Yet all their criticisms of Brexit read over to their central policy of breaking up the UK – the Irish/Scottish customs border, which they claim will inevitably lead to a hard border, and the fact that undoing a 47-year old union is too difficult, despite their desire to unpick a vastly deeper union of over three centuries’ standing. Scotland’s largest export market – by far – is the rest of the United Kingdom.
All opposition parties have been calling for a General Election yet, when twice presented with the option of just such an early vote, opposition MPs, including former Conservatives, have voted it down. Very often these were the very same MPs accusing the Government of a ‘coup’ – a very curious coup indeed when opposition MPs prevent the Government from calling an election.
Like St Augustine’s prayer for chastity, remain-supporting MPs continue to call for an early General Election – but not yet. Claims that ‘now is not the right time’ only underline their fears that they would lose to a Johnson-led Conservative Party, and so more groundless grounds are advanced for why an election is not yet possible, which also ‘happen’ to have the effect of hampering, or even preventing, our exit from the EU.
The first is that an election can not take place until the ‘threat’ of a no deal / WTO Brexit on 31st October has been eliminated. Yet if opposition MPs had supported the Prime Minister’s initial timetable of an election on 15th October, they would still have had ample time to either themselves ask for an extension (if they won the election) or to pass any legislation to avoid this – the ‘Surrender Act’ was able to get through all stages in both Houses within three days.
The second is that there should be a second referendum, but Parliament has already rejected this approach and, in any case, it poses serious problems. Remain-supporting MPs have already refused to abide by the outcome of the previous referendum, so why should voters believe they will accept a second vote to leave the EU? Once bitten, twice shy. Moreover, if ‘remain’ wins a narrow victory, how is this meant to bring the country back together again? It will also require considerable time for fresh legislation – the 2016 referendum took over a year to be held, despite the necessary legislation being given priority after the 2015 General Election.
A third is an ‘interim’ or ‘caretaker’ Prime Minister, whose only purpose will be to seek an Article 50 extension beyond 31st October before calling a General Election. Yet in our system there is no such thing as an interim Prime Minister – you are either the Head of Government, or you are not. In order to be Head of Government, you will also have to have one – so all the 100-plus ministerial positions must be filled. How will these be equitably allocated amongst the fractious hodge-podge of opposition parties, especially if this putative leader will apparently not be Jeremy Corbyn? What if the ‘interim’ Prime Minister does not call the election, but instead squats in Downing Street with no democratic mandate?
Set against all these obvious machinations against leaving the EU, the Prime Minister’s strategy is unambiguous and coherent: Get Brexit Done. This clarity will stand him, and the Conservatives, in good stead when the General Election finally comes provided he maintains possession of the narrative that he is trying to deliver Brexit in opposition to a remain-dominated Parliament.
In politics, perception is important. This is why the broadly-positive reaction by his own party and the DUP to his Statement on Thursday to his Brexit proposals is important – it not only strengthens his hands in the negotiations with the EU, but fixes more firmly the impression in people’s minds that he is serious about trying to secure a good deal, in opposition to many remainers in Parliament who would prefer not to leave altogether. I hope opposition MPs will finally pluck up the courage of their convictions and let the people have their say in a General Election.