In private moments of exasperation with rebellious Tory MPs, prime minister David Cameron used to complain that “too many of my colleagues think they’re here as tribunes of the people”. For him, as for Conservatives since the days of Edmund Burke, MPs should be representatives autonomously exercising judgment, not delegates meekly obeying instructions.
Well congratulations Dave. Thanks to your brilliant decision to risk EU membership – and the entire British political settlement on a coin-toss, MPs are all tribunes now.
There are some serious caveats about the ComRes poll on the front of the Daily Telegraph today: the question looks loaded and the “don’t know” figure is very high. But the fact that proroguing Parliament to let the executive have its way over Brexit isn’t simply rejected out of hand is another sign of how the referendum has eroded the conventions that underpin our constitution.
For all the reasonable criticisms of that poll, it is hard to deny that a non-trivial number of people would now be quite content if Parliament was set aside to deny MPs a say on the form and fact of our EU exit. (For a more balanced poll, see this by YouGov. But even that shows that 24 per cent of respondents would support suspension. Don’t let justifiable doubts about the ComRes poll blind you to the bigger picture: millions of people are quite relaxed about binning Parliament).
The speed and scale of Britain’s constitutional revolution is stunning. It’s less than three years since judges in the Gina Miller case invoked Dicey to remind the country that the “will of the people” is expressed through acts of Parliament. Now we’re seriously debating whether to suspend Parliament to prevent it having a say on what the executive says is the will of the people.
It is the defence of Parliamentary sovereignty from the claims of popular sovereignty that marks the dividing line in our recent constitutional struggles. It is true, as some Leavers suggest, that some Remain-minded MPs have stretched conventions too, but that has largely been done with the intention of allowing Parliament to curb executive action; that is quite proper, up to a point.
For me, that point is whether we leave. Sadly, I think we have to leave; the convention that referendum results have force should also be respected. But I think it’s more than valid – necessary, in fact – for Parliament to have its say on how we do so.
Can that still happen? Can those who would defend Parliament from the revolutionary Brexiteers stave off a permanent shift that embeds the notion of popular sovereignty? I hope so: I’ve seen enough of the use of executive power by politicians of varying sorts to want a proper check on that power. I’m also quite fond of the Union, and you can’t set aside the Commons to get Brexit without opening the door to Scottish independence: if the old rules don’t apply to Brexiteers, why should they apply to the Nats?
I also suggest those who now argue that sovereignty rests with “the people” ponder what that might ultimately mean for the Crown. I’m not a republican but if I was I’d be delighted with the work Conservative Brexiteers are currently doing to promote the doctrine of a sovereign people.
What is needed now is for someone to launch an urgent defence, not so much of Parliament, but of its ultimate function: protecting the people from the unfettered exercise of power by their rulers. To explain that however much you want your precious Brexit, you really don’t want to live in a country where a man in a government office gets to decide what happens without anyone watching over him.
But who could lead such a defence? Time for David Cameron to leave the miserable boredom of his early retirement and join the conversation he started in 2016. Time for the author of the referendum to explain that respecting its outcome doesn’t have to mean disrespecting the fundamental importance of parliament. To make the emotive, accessible argument that Parliament is your final defence against over-reaching politicians, the nation’s ultimate insurance policy against tyranny.
Come back, David Cameron, and fight for Britain’s constitutional democracy. You broke it, you fix it.