Isabel Hardman

Brexit Bill debate: MPs are confused about their job description

Brexit Bill debate: MPs are confused about their job description
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The debate over the Bill allowing the government to trigger Article 50 has been surprisingly good-natured, so far, given the stakes. There have been some impressive speeches from all sides, and even some humour. We have learned very little about what the Bill entails and have been largely unsurprised by what each MP has said: Labour is in a very miserable place and shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer laboured this point with great feeling. Ken Clarke opposed the referendum, opposes leaving and isn’t going to change his mind. Nicky Morgan and Michael Gove are unlikely to consider sharing office facilities any time soon (the europhile former Education Secretary intervened on the speech of her predecessor to say rather acidly that she realised that a 6,000 word speech would be quite short by Gove’s standards). Labour’s Clive Efford, meanwhile, was briefly mulling triggering Article 7, before he realised that he was supposed to be talking about Article 50. And Speaker Bercow was picked up by the Commons microphones telling his clerk that he knew what he was doing. 

What has been most striking, though, has been the confusion in the Commons over what MPs are supposed to do. This is a surprisingly common problem, as MPs have no job description and so have to decide how to spend their time. Normally these decisions are whether to attend a Westminster Hall debate on Job Centres, or whether to sit in the Chamber and give a speech on a bill.

Are MPs supposed to do as their constituents say, even when they fervently disagree? Or are they elected and paid to be better informed than the busy electorate can ever be, and to make decisions on behalf of those voters with their best judgement? Keir Starmer seems to think it is the former, telling the Chamber that Labour was in very difficult position because many of its voters had disagreed with the party’s campaigning stance in the referendum. He explained that Labour was a ‘fiercely internationalist party’ and praised the functions of the EU. He then added:

‘But we failed to persuade. We lost the referendum. Yes, the result was close. Yes, there were lies and half-truths—none worse than the false promise of an extra £350 million a week for the NHS. Yes, technically the referendum is not legally binding. But the result was not technical; it was deeply political, and politically the notion that the referendum was merely a consultation exercise to inform Parliament holds no water. When I was imploring people up and down the country to vote in the referendum and to vote to remain, I told them that their vote really mattered and that a decision was going to be made. I was not inviting them to express a view.

‘Although we are fiercely internationalist and fiercely pro-European, we in the Labour party are, above all, democrats. Had the outcome been to remain, we would have expected the result to be honoured, and that cuts both ways. A decision was made on 23 June last year to leave the EU. Two thirds of Labour MPs represent constituencies that voted to leave; one third represent constituencies that voted to remain. This is obviously a difficult decision. I wish the result had gone the other way—I campaigned passionately for that—but as democrats we in the Labour party have to accept the result. It follows that the Prime Minister should not be blocked from starting the article 50 negotiations.’

As I wrote earlier, many Labour MPs who vote to scupper the Bill are staring down a barrel, given the number of pro-Leave constituencies represented by the party. Pragmatically they have little choice other than to assist with the Bill’s progress in principle while trying to prevent the kind of ‘Hard Brexit’ that the majority of Labour MPs really cannot stomach.

But one man who cannot stomach any of it - and who believes it is his constitutional duty not to stomach it - is Ken Clarke, who gave an impassioned speech to the Chamber which could be summarised as ‘I regret nothing and have not changed my mind’. More than that, he argued that MPs shouldn’t just be beholden to what their constituents order:

‘I hope that I have adequately explained that my views on this issue have not been shaken very much over the decades—they have actually strengthened somewhat. Most Members, I trust, are familiar with Burke’s address to the electors of Bristol. I have always firmly believed that every MP should vote on an issue of this importance according to their view of the best national interest. I never quote Burke, but I shall paraphrase him. He said to his constituents, “If I no longer give you the benefit of my judgment and simply follow your orders, I am not serving you; I am betraying you.” I personally shall be voting with my conscience content, and when we see what unfolds hereafter as we leave the European Union, I hope that the consciences of other Members of Parliament will remain equally content.’

He was later echoed by Anna Soubry, who quoted Burke’s lines about noisy voices in politics (which some of her colleagues may find ironic given the MP for Broxtowe is one of the noisiest Parliamentarians around). Clarke and a handful of other MPs believe that as they are in a representative democracy, it is up to them to decide what is wise, even if voters have taken another view on one particular issue. Of course, the problem with disagreeing with voters too often is that they decide you’re not representing you and chuck you out at the next election, as they did with Burke. This is something that Clarke acknowledged was not a particular worry for him, given he is stepping down in 2020.

It is also rather difficult to try to persuade MPs of the merits of representative democracy when they approved direct democracy in the form of the EU Referendum Bill. At that point, MPs decided that they had not been elected to make informed judgements on behalf of voters on Europe, and so it is a bit late for the Commons to try to reassert itself.

Is this lack of confidence in representative democracy just confined to the referendum, though? I’m not sure it is, because MPs seem less and less keen on taking a Burkean stance on a number of issues. They are often swayed by mass petitions - some MPs employ staff whose sole job it is to sift through emails from 38 Degrees and other organisations - and speak often of ‘taking the politics out’ of decisions, which is a curiously self-loathing way of saying ‘you have elected us but we do not trust ourselves to do what you’ve asked’. But ignoring the result of a referendum that has already been held wouldn’t make it any easier for politicians to argue in favour of politics and their own sound judgement to voters. And so MPs are this afternoon trying to work out what it is they are supposed to do.