Which way ahead for Britain and Brexit?

After three and a half years since the 2016 referendum it is beginning to look like the result of that vote is coming close to realisation. That is not to say we will leave the European Union on 31st October. That would only have happened if we left without a deal and Parliament has twice voted against that, aware of the likely damage it would do to our economy. Leaving with either Theresa May’s deal or Boris Johnson’s, there will be a transition period in which our future relationship with the EU, especially our trading relationship, will be settled.

Nevertheless, the Government has negotiated a deal with the EU, not very different to the one Theresa May negotiated, and last Tuesday the new Withdrawal Bill that enshrines the latest deal was given a Second Reading by MPs with a respectable majority of 30. The Government proposed that the House of Commons should complete the legislative process by Thursday. The Lords might then examine and pass the Bill in another three days, making it law by Thursday 31st October.

MPs, including some who voted for the Bill in principle, rejected this timetable. They did so responsibly. It is a complex Bill 110 pages long, addressing important issues that merit careful scrutiny. These include citizen’s rights, workers’ rights, proposals relating to the transition period, our future relationships with our EU neighbours and controversial provisions for Northern Ireland which the DUP do not accept. To do this properly requires more than 2 days.  Hasty legislation can produce bad law with unforeseeable consequences.

The Prime Minister had made 31st October his target date for leaving the EU. There was nothing wrong with that as a motivator but his petulant response to the programme vote suggests that he does not understand that he is accountable to Parliament, not Parliament to him. Now he has said MPs can have more time if they agree to a General Election on 12th December so long as the EU will give us an extension to the end of the year.

Under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2016 Parliament cannot be dissolved before 2022 unless a motion to dissolve Parliament is passed with a majority of two-thirds of the House. The Government doesn’t have a majority and needs the Opposition to support a dissolution motion. The Labour Party is unwilling to do that until there is no possibility of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit.

Underlying this debate about Brexit are deeper questions about how we do politics and what sort of leaders we have and want. Those who are opposed to Brexit are clamouring for another referendum in the hope that it will reverse the 2016 result just as that vote reversed the 1975 result. Some might wonder how well-informed the voters were when they voted for or against our membership of the EU in those referenda.

This in turn raises questions about how we do democracy in Britain. We elect our politicians to make laws and govern the country with limited knowledge of both the individuals we elect and the issues on which they have to legislate and govern. Polls suggest that Boris Johnson is different to his predecessors but is not trustworthy. When asked by YouGov what they think about him 20% trust him but 58% think he is untrustworthy. He was chosen by 92,154 members of the Conservative Party, not by the 48 million UK voters. My point is not to attack the man but to ask if we need to think of better ways of making democracy work.

This is not an academic question. The nation is deeply divided on Brexit and on other major issues too. There is frustration at the time it is taking to fulfil the result of the 2016 referendum. A majority of MPs genuinely want to fulfil the voters’ wishes but a significant minority of voters want another “peoples vote” in the hope it will reverse the 2016 result. Common sense says we need to do more to equip the voters to understand the issues facing the nation and to elect politicians they trust to govern them.

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