Britain famously has an unwritten constitution. On the whole it has worked pretty well over the years, evolving to address political developments and challenges. It’s not, though, set in stone.
But what a group of MPs is now plotting is nothing less than a constitutional coup which, if successful, could change the way in which we have been governed for well over a century.
If Theresa May’s deal is defeated tomorrow, Dominic Grieve and his band of Remainer conspirators plan to neutralise the Government, and to assume charge of the entire Brexit process – which would almost certainly mean no Brexit at all.
British Prime Minister, Theresa May and her husband Philip (unseen) attend Sunday morning prayers at her local church in Maidenhead, today
Needless to say, they claim to be asserting parliamentary sovereignty – taking back control, if you like. This is a preposterous falsehood that must be demolished. These MPs are behaving in a fundamentally undemocratic way. They are actually acting against the people, not on their behalf. Let me explain.
Under our political system, parties put forward a set of policies in a manifesto which they are committed to enacting if elected. Before the last election in June 2017, both Conservative and Labour undertook to honour Brexit, for which 17.4 million people had voted a year earlier.
In other words, the overwhelming bulk of the Commons – Tory, Labour, as well as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – made a solemn pledge to carry out the will of the majority as expressed in the referendum. Only about 50 MPs from Liberal Democrat, Scottish Nationalist and other small parties were returned on an anti-Brexit manifesto.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip leave church, near High Wycombe
This means that the ponderous Grieve and many of his fellow plotters (Vince Cable, the Lib Dem leader, can be exempted) were elected on the understanding that they would support Brexit, not thwart it.
They cannot in good conscience renege on the contract they made with electors. Ah, I hear someone say. What about the Tory political philosopher Edmund Burke, who, in 1774, argued persuasively in a speech to the burghers of Bristol that he and other MPs were not mere delegates of the people, but representatives expected to use their judgment?
But the truth is that the modern, if seldom employed, device of a referendum drives a coach and horses through Burke’s dictum of 250 years ago. Voters charged Parliament with carrying out the result of the referendum, and nearly all MPs accepted this obligation.
Former attorney general Dominic Grieve, who has said politicians have a duty to prevent the country committing national suicide in relation to Brexit
No, what Grieve, Oliver Letwin, Sarah Wollaston et al are cooking up is a constitutional outrage. They are being assisted in this by the insufferably puffed up Commons Speaker, John Bercow.
Last week, having plotted with Grieve in private, Bercow shockingly overrode long established parliamentary convention to force Mrs May, if she is defeated tomorrow, to come back to the Commons within three days to set out alternative plans.
Assuming the Prime Minister loses the vote heavily, rebel Remainer Tory MPs (who have dozens of existing or potential collaborators in the Labour Party) will try to impose a series of ‘indicative votes’, foremost among which would be a demand for a second referendum.
Grieve, Cable and other MPs from the main parties today publish their draft legislation for a so-called ‘People’s Vote’ (a term which absurdly implies there hasn’t already been one) as though they constitute a government. Such a motion might well be carried. Remember there is an anti-Brexit majority in the Commons which, I regret to say, does not appear to respect the outcome of the referendum, let alone recoil at the prospect of ignoring it altogether.
Last week’s finagling by Bercow may only be the start of the subverting of an enfeebled Government. With his dependable assistance, a succession of Commons votes could be binding on Mrs May – or on her successor if she resigns. Parliament would control Brexit. And that would probably mean staying in the EU. For as I have previously argued, the most likely threat, if the Prime Minister’s hard-negotiated deal is defeated, is not No Deal but a second referendum in which all the forces of Project Fear would be re-deployed with more unscrupulousness than ever before.
Pro-European demonstrators protest outside parliament in London, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019
Yesterday we got a whiff of what may be in store for us in a newspaper article by John Major. Having accused the Brexit leadership of mendacity on an epic scale (as though Remainers did not twist and exaggerate!), the former prime minister suggested Parliament should rescind our withdrawal from the EU and establish a ‘national consultation process’, which in due course would lead to a second referendum. The nerve of it!
Can’t these people foresee the damage that would be done to the democratic process if the majority decision of the British people were set aside, and we ended up staying in the EU because the likes of Grieve and Major can’t accept the result?
By the way, I noticed that, in common with some Remainers, Major had many harsh words for the allegedly lying Brexiteers, but none at all for EU officials such as Jean-Claude Juncker, or the Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar, who have been so obstructive and unhelpful throughout the negotiating process.
I don’t know about you but – in addition to the frightening loss of trust in our democratic institutions I have mentioned – the sheer mean-spiritedness and pettiness of EU officials and some European leaders is another strong reason for not wanting to crawl back, cap in hand, to Brussels.
So far I have only discussed the short-term baleful effects if MPs hijack the Brexit process, and overturn the outcome of the referendum result. But who can doubt that once they had wrested power from the Government, there would be further incursions into the power of the executive?
That could only spell further political chaos to add to the problems we already have, with the prospect of over-mighty MPs squaring up to, and attempting to second guess, the government of the day.
A pro-European demonstrator protests outside parliament in London, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019
I repeat: political parties are democratically accountable bodies which offer a series of policies to the people, and are judged by their success or failure.
None of us wants to be governed by shifting coalitions of MPs who are not bound by manifesto promises.
Are there any circumstances in which it would be legitimate for Members of Parliament to take matters into their own hands and challenge the executive?
Maybe in extremis, if the Government had disintegrated, and we were hurtling towards disaster. But we are not by any stretch of the imagination in that position. Theresa May has brokered a deal with the EU, and the Commons will vote on it tomorrow. It is far from perfect, but it honours the result of the Referendum.
Of course, lots of Brexiteers have argued it doesn’t go far enough. As many, including the Prime Minister, have warned, by their intransigence they risk ending up with no Brexit at all.
But now there is a further danger. A vote against May’s deal tomorrow may not only keep us in the EU. It could foster anarchy in Parliament, with Remain MPs making the running. I don’t see Jacob Rees-Mogg and his allies, or the DUP, prospering in such conditions.
Things really are spinning out of control. The only way to restore a modicum of stability is to support the best version – I’d say the only version – of Brexit we will ever have.