In two months, we are due to leave the European Union but there...
In my last blog, in December, I observed the stalemate over Brexit and asked how it could be overcome. I recognised that a significant number of MPs reject the right and left wing extremes of their parties and suggested that they might offer a way of overcoming the stalemate. Now it looks as though that is beginning to happen.
A cross party group of former Ministers, including the chairs of four Select Committees, have come together to try to block any possibility of a no-deal Brexit. No-deal is the default position if Parliament has not passed any other provision. This cross party group has put down an amendment to the Finance (No 3) Bill that would only allow a no-deal Brexit if MPs actively voted to proceed with one. That is highly unlikely because only 125 MPs actively support a no-deal Brexit. It is uncertain whether the Speaker will call that amendment for debate but if he doesn’t the group are expected to seek to amend other Bills to achieve the same goal.
Concurrently, another 209 MPs have signed a letter to the Prime Minister, organised by Dame Caroline Spelman, the former Conservative Environment Secretary and Jack Dromey, a former Labour Shadow Minister, asking her to rule out a no-deal Brexit.
Even within the Cabinet there are signs of centrists discretely seeking to prevent a hard Brexit. The Justice Secretary, David Gauke, is said to consider a no-deal Brexit “not a viable option”. The Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, has also talked about a “plausible argument “for a second referendum if Parliament cannot reach an agreement on a deal.
Theresa May’s response is that the best way to avoid a no-deal Brexit is to vote for the deal she has negotiated with the EU. Whilst eliminating a no-deal Brexit might cause some MPs to vote for that there is still no sign of majority support for it. Crucially, the ten DUP MPs who give the Government a slim majority are implacably opposed to it because of the backstop arrangements.
If MPs reject both a no-deal Brexit and Theresa May’s alternative, where do we go on March 29th? Remainers will say we go nowhere and stay in the EU. Those wanting to respect the 2016, referendum result will argue, with Amber Rudd, for another referendum. 75% of Labour party members back this view. They will contend that the voters were not made fully aware in 2016 of the implications of Brexit for the economy and possible job losses and should be given an opportunity to think again. Another referendum would require fresh legislation and this and the subsequent campaigns could not be carried out by March 29th, making it necessary for Article 50 to be suspended until a fresh result was reached.
Others will argue that the referendum was a mistake and follow Edmund Burke’s view that MP’s are elected to serve the best interests of the voters, not slavishly follow their opinions. That will be hotly contested by committed Brexiteers. They will also dismiss any suggestions that Brexit might be bad for the economy, as they did when the Bank of England warned that it would be. Those warnings were irresponsibly dismissed as ‘fear factor’.
This whole sad episode in our history ought to teach us some important lessons about how we make democracy work. If we want the voters to be directly involved in making major decisions they need to be made aware of all the implications of the choices before they vote. That did not happen in 2016. Second, we should consider whether voting should be made compulsory so we learn how to grapple with all sides of an issue before voting. The nation has been deeply divided by the Brexit referendum and it could take a generation to heal those divisions. We should do what we can to help that happen and express our views more humbly. The way Anna Soubry was treated this week was unacceptable and Jo Cox’s assassination was totally evil. By working on a cross-party basis the centrists are trying to model a better way of doing politics and we should follow their example.