Brenda from Bristol, look away now. Jeremy Corbyn is pressing Theresa May to call a general election, saying:
‘To break the deadlock, an election is not only the most practical option, it is also the most democratic option. It would give the winning party a renewed mandate to negotiate a better deal for Britain and secure support for it in Parliament and across the country.’
The EU has already made clear there will be no changes to the terms and Corbyn’s election call is really a holding tactic. However, he has, inadvertently, stumbled on an inescapable truth: this Parliament is no longer capable of delivering Brexit or even of thwarting it. It is not the democratic system that has broken down but the parliamentary one. Quite simply, MPs do not wish to do something the voters have twice instructed them to do. In the 2016 referendum, the voters said they wished the UK to leave the EU. That result is not constitutionally binding on Parliament but it is the product of a compact struck when MPs put the question to the people.
Disregarding the outcome of a referendum is not new territory; we have precedent but we also have precedent for its consequences. The outcome of the 1979 referendum on devolution for Scotland was disregarded because, although a majority voted Yes, they failed to do so in sufficient numbers to meet the 40 per cent threshold stipulated by the Scotland Act (1978). What followed was a reorientation of Scottish civic affairs to a constitution-first politics that, admitting the occasional interruption, endures to this day. Ignoring the majority’s wish for devolution did not make devolution go away, it made everything more or less about devolution for the next 40 years. (Incidentally, the Scottish referendum result was 52 per cent/48 per cent too.)
The second time the voters instructed Parliament was in June 2017, when the general election resulted in 82 per cent of the votes going either to the Conservatives or Labour. Both these parties contested the election on explicitly pro-Brexit platforms. The Conservative manifesto promised: ‘As we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the single market or the customs union.’ The Labour manifesto confirmed that the party ‘accepts the referendum result’ and committed to leaving the single market by pledging: ‘Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union’.
However, MPs thus elected are disinclined to follow through on this mandate. The European Research Group phalanx of hard Brexiteers will not back the Prime Minister’s blueprint, largely though not exclusively because of the backstop, even though it delivers essentially what the Tory manifesto promised. Some Tory Remainers, who stood under that same banner, refuse to realise it by voting for the Prime Minister’s deal. Soft Remainers on the Labour backbenches will not vote for a Brexit outside the single market and hard Remainers for any Brexit at all. They believe their constituents’ economic interests will be gravely injured and for them that trumps the referendum result and their manifesto. The Labour frontbench will not vote for any Brexit proposed by the Conservatives.
Parliament has tied the hands of the executive, with the Cooper amendment to limit the Treasury’s fiscal powers in a no-deal scenario and with the Grieve amendment requiring the Prime Minister to return to the House with her alternative plan within three days of a meaningful vote going against her. The latter effort was greatly aided yesterday by the Speaker, who overrode precedent and seemingly the clerks’ advice to select Dominic Grieve’s motion. John Bercow has been credited for his stalwart defence of Parliament against the executive but yesterday’s undignified scenes make clear that the Speaker lacks the confidence of half of Parliament. He is held in contempt on the government backbenches and considered by ministers to be the de facto leader of the opposition. These enmities have simmered long but now boiled over cannot be put back in the pot.
John Bright said England was the mother of parliaments but her offspring may well wince at the sight of their progenitor. The House of Commons, once respected around the world as the gold standard of political debate, has become a source of national embarrassment, a symbol of a fractious and directionless nation. A second referendum does not solve that. Setting aside the moral arguments for and against a so-called People’s Vote, neither result would advance matters. A Remain vote will overturn the largest democratic exercise in the UK’s history and inject an even stronger dose of poison into national life. Some Remainers cannot grasp this because, as they see it, politics could scarcely be more febrile than it is already. These are good people but naive people. Another Leave vote, even and especially for a no-deal exit, is unlikely to be heeded by MPs who sincerely oppose Brexit. If they disregarded one referendum result, believing themselves to be acting in the national interest, why would they accept another?
The UK’s constitutional crisis is this: the voters want Brexit, the executive wants Brexit, but Parliament does not want Brexit. Either the first two must change their minds or the latter must change theirs. If they do not the only prudent course of action is to dissolve this parliament and hold an election on the question of Brexit. How the parties manage the implications for manifesto-drafting and candidate selection is their own affair. Voters might elect a new parliament more amenable to their wishes or they might return one not altogether different from the current composition. But having been given a choice over Brexit, they would now get to choose whether Parliament implements their choice. Parliament is the logjam and parliament is where it must be broken.
At some point, we will have to address the philosophical questions this moment has stirred. Do we wish to continue down the path of direct democracy with more referendums or restate the primacy of parliament by forgoing them from now on? Do we need a codified constitution setting out in a single document the power of the executive and parliament and the checks and balances on each? Do we still deem the Crown-in-Parliament sovereign or do we instinctively believe in popular sovereignty? These are questions that cannot be avoided (though, being British, we will give it our best shot) and a future parliament will have to confront them. The priority for this parliament, though, should be making way for the next.