Theresa May has in effect signalled an intention to allow MPs to hijack our democracy by opening up a route for the EU Referendum result to be overridden and reversed
Note: Amended, longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Thursday 17th January 2019
Only 36 hours after last Tuesday 15th January’s unprecedented, humiliating, crushing House of Commons defeat for Theresa May and her cynically-misnamed EU “Withdrawal” Agreement, which would lock the UK into a permanent Brussels vassalage even more oppressive than membership, her intended direction of travel in response was already evident. It was, and it, towards further concession, capitulation, and finally, surrender.
In her immediate post-defeat statement, and both during Wednesday 16th January’s Prime Minister’s Questions and again in her contribution to the subsequent debate on Labour’s unsuccessful Vote of No Confidence, May repeated the same automaton-like bromides which have characterised her conduct of the Brexit negotiations since inception. She had, she purported to assert, no intention of revoking Article 50: she has, she professed to insist, no plans for a second referendum.
But, as so often, her words come hedged about with caveats which make her pledges ring hollow to the point of being meaningless. She did rule out revoking Article 50, but she did not do the same when quizzed about the prospect of asking the EU for extra time to negotiate beyond 29th March: and then later talked about it being conditional on EU agreement, thus impliedly acknowledging the possibility of it.
She ostensibly ruled out a second referendum, but committed herself to “establishing what would secure the consent of this House”. Given the overt support among the Commons’ anti-Brexit majority for the speciously named “People’s Vote”, that isn’t especially hard to divine.
May’s promissory notes are issued in devalued currency. She pledged not to call an unnecessary election, and then did. She declared after both her Lancaster House and Mansion House speeches that no deal was better than a bad deal, only to conclude now that any deal, however bad, is better than no deal.
She laid down numerous “non-negotiable” Red Lines for Brexit discussions, only to abandon and retreat from them. Her robotic insistence that her Remain-by-Stealth, Brexit-in-Name-Only, “Withdrawal” Agreement, “delivers on the Referendum result by bringing back control of our borders, our laws and our money” has been shown to be grossly mendacious so frequently and comprehensively that hearing it intoned yet again becomes almost embarrassing rather than irritating. Little she says can be believed.
The signals of upcoming surrender came fast. “Sturgeon is expecting a phone from Theresa May later this evening as she starts reaching out to other parties”, reported the BBC’s Scotland editor, Sarah Smith, not long after the Government defeat. The outcome of that isn’t hard to guess, either.
“The Government is incapable of winning support in this House for her deal on its own”, observed Corbyn, (for once) accurately, and “must consider ideas that are negotiable and that have the sufficient support in this House”. In reaction, May has quickly committed herself to “listening to the views of the House so that we could ascertain what it is that would command its support”.
Well, we know what those are. They are, in order of preference, ruling out a no-deal WTO-Brexit, an ultra-soft Brexit, a Brexit-In-Name-Only, and ideally no Brexit at all.
One doesn’t need clairvoyant skills to see where May is going, particularly recalling that she has always been a Remainer in mind and spirit, a hesitant at best Brexiteer in office, and a Prime Minister unable even to say that she believes in the very policy which she sought the Seals of Office of First Lord of the Treasury to implement.
May in my view will almost certainly agree to take a no-deal WTO-Brexit off the table, then concede both an extension, if not outright revocation, of Article 50, and a second referendum. She will feign reluctance, but actually be delighted.
In conceding both, she will be considerably assisted by the procedural amendments to the way House of Commons business is arranged. I described the initial stages of that process, facilitated by apparent pre-arrangement, in secret, between the now stridently anti-Brexit arch-Remainer Dominic Grieve and a blatantly-biased Speaker Bercow, in the footnote update to my blogpost here of 3 or 4 days ago.
That, it turned out, was indeed merely the enabler. With subsequent developments it became clear that the Grieve-Bercow agreement of Wednesday 9th January to bring about the alteration to Parliament’s rules was not a one-off, but the precursor to, in effect, a constitutional coup d’état by anti-democracy Remainer MPs to reverse Brexit, ideally via a second referendum with the choice to all intents and purposes between Ultra-Remain and Remain-By-Another-Name.
To understand the full import of this, it’s worth reading this exposition of it by Number Ten Downing Street’s former Director of Legislative Affairs.
The effect of Grieve’s and his like-minded colleagues’ aims would be to make elections based on party manifestos meaningless, because backbenchers would be able, not merely to oppose but to legislate: and, via just a few rebels from the party in government combining with the Opposition, to enact laws directly contradictory to the mandate on which the Government in office was elected. A recipe in other words, for legislative mayhem, democratic deficit, and constitutional chaos.
By this means, in the specifically Brexit context, the caucus of about 20-30 resolutely anti-Brexit ‘Conservative’ MPs clustered around Grieve, Morgan and Soubry would be able, in conjunction with the Opposition parties, to legislate for a second referendum, the deferment or cancellation of Article 50, and even the postponement if not reversal of Brexit itself.
As Dominic Lawson stated in last weekend’s The Sunday Times, the claims by the anti-Brexit MPs to be “taking control of Brexit, just as Leave-ers voted” are knowingly specious, self-serving and anti-democratic, and Speaker Bercow has aided them in attempting a constitutional coup. Lawson went on to say:
“So the effort of many in parliament now to revoke article 50 is nothing less than the use (or rather abuse) of parliamentary sovereignty as a weapon against the people who elected it: MPs are to “take back control” from those who give parliament its sole claim to legitimacy, or indeed, moral authority.”
At the conclusion of Wednesday 16th January’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Grieve introduced into the Commons a Bill to give effect to these changes. First and Second Readings were both set for next Monday, 21st January. The Remainer coup is under way. The fix is in.
May ruling out a no-deal WTO-Brexit is now sadly a certainty, and her conceding on both Article 50 and a second referendum before then can’t, I suspect, be ruled out. She will not want to risk another humiliating defeat. Parliament will have wrested control from the people it asked for an instruction, in order to disregard and overturn it, because the people’s instruction was not to its liking.
Why are we in this mess? For two reasons, the first of which is Theresa May herself. She has misread the EU, misread her Party, and misread Parliament. She did so because, more important than all three, and yet the proximate cause of them, she misread the voters, mistakenly convinced that reducing immigration was the principal reason for the Brexit vote, when the main driver all along was regaining the sovereignty and democracy which her deal so signally fails to do. Misread is what she always does. And that, in turn, is because she relies on others to tell her what she believes.
The second reason is our legislature itself. On best estimates, by parliamentary constituency, Britain voted to leave the European Union by 406 to 242. By voting area, it voted to leave the European Union by 263 to 119. Conservative-held constituencies in 2016 voted to leave by 247 to 80. Labour-held constituencies in 2016 voted to leave by 148 to 84. In contrast, among 2016 MPs, Remain was the preferred option by 400 to 248.
In June 2015, MPs voted by 544 to 53 to hold the Referendum. In February 2017, MPs voted by 498 to 114 to trigger Article 50. At the 2017 General Election, approximately 85 per cent of votes were cast for parties pledging in their manifestos fully to implement the Referendum result. Yet despite this, a majority of MPs would clearly now wish either to dilute Brexit to meaninglessness, or reverse it altogether.
Do MPs really think they can neutralise and reverse Brexit without also doing huge, possibly terminal, collateral damage to Britain’s entire political settlement? Their message would be starkly simple: ‘Your vote counts only if you vote for something which we would agree with. If we don’t, then it doesn’t count for anything’.
Where whatever’s left of democracy would go after this is anyone’s guess. The fall-out would be profound. Why would anyone ever bother to vote again? Theresa May will have seized our democracy, and run away with it.
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