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The duty of Parliamentarians regarding Brexit

Members of Parliament must decide what is in the national interest and are free to ignore the wishes of their constituents.

Summary

Posted 19 May 2018

Brexit (Britain's departure from the European Union) has divided the UK very deeply since the EU Referendum of June 2016 which voted by 52/48 in favour of Britain leaving the EU.

In "The problem with referendums" I explained why referendums are generally a bad idea, and particularly what I called "Pig in a poke referendums" where one of the alternatives is not specified in any meaningful detail.

The EU Referendum was a classic example of this, since there were no details of what form departure would take. After the EU Referendum politicians in favour of leaving have given their own preferred interpretations of what leaving the EU means, from the most minimal changes to the most extreme.

Against that background, I wrote a short piece on Conservative Home, setting out the clear responsibility of Members of the House of Commons. What I wrote is unpalatable to many, but is an accurate statement of the law. You can read it below.

Mohammed Amin: Brexit and the duty of every Parliamentarian

Mohammed Amin MBE is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity.

By definition, you cannot be elected as a Member of Parliament without receiving more votes from your constituents than any other candidate. Also, in practice, apart from the rare single-issue candidate, you cannot get elected without being the candidate of a recognised political party. Otherwise, you lack the benefit of name recognition, have to formulate your own political programme, suffer from lack of volunteers to campaign for you etc.

Nevertheless, our long Parliamentary history makes some things crystal clear:

The only obligation of an MP is to exercise their best judgement, to vote in the best interests of the nation, and not to vote out of self-interest, for example for personal pecuniary benefit.

The above truths are often forgotten, or attacked in this populist age, but they remain true nevertheless. We are governed by a representative democracy, not by opinion poll, not by the tabloid press, and not by plebiscites.

Obviously, on a day-to-day basis, MPs follow the voting instructions of their parties because otherwise organised government would risk becoming impossible. However, issues such as war and peace, fundamental moral issues, and major national issues such as Brexit are a sharp reminder of what the duty of MPs is.

Where Britain is today

I think it is fair to say that the our country’s Brexit negotiating position is in some disarray.

Blame rests with the Prime Minister who rushed to serve an Article 50 notice ignoring my advice in “The Government must go to the ECJ to establish whether Article 50 notice is revocable” and then after losing her Parliamentary majority failed to seek cross-party consensus on negotiating strategy as I recommended in “The Government should now agree a Brexit position with other parties and the devolved administrations.”

Instead overwhelming priority has been given to internal negotiations within the Conservative Party, while the other political parties have been ignored. Negotiations with the EU-27 have repeatedly taken a back-seat to internal Conservative Party machinations.

Meanwhile, the 24-month Article 50 clock ticks away remorselessly, as in a game of chess. The equivalent of losing on time when your chess clock’s flag falls is leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 without any kind of deal. While this would not be quite as bad as the hypothetical ultra-hard Brexit of my article “Ultra-hard Brexit – a mathematical perspective,” few people apart from some Brexit fantasists would consider leaving the EU with no exit deal to be in the national interest.

What happens next

Sometime this year, assuming the Government does not completely abandon negotiating with the EU-27, the government will put a Brexit departure agreement before Parliament. In the normal way of governments, it will attempt to bully Parliamentarians by telling them that this is the only deal available, and that if they do not vote for it the world will end.

That will be the moment for every MP to look in the mirror and remind themselves what it means to be an MP. Accordingly, it is quite clear what their duty is. That is to ask the question: “Is this deal better than any of the alternatives below?

The alternatives are:

If any of the alternatives look preferable to the deal, then Parliament should instruct the government to follow the alternative that Parliament prefers.

Indeed, even before the deal gets to Parliament, the Prime Minister should ask herself the same question. If she concludes that remaining within the EU is in the national interest, she should exercise the Royal Prerogative to withdraw the Article 50 notice, and then tell her Cabinet and her Party what she has done and why. That is called leadership.

Regardless of what is said by Conservative Brexiteers now, I do not believe that in a fit of pique they would emulate Samson by forcing a General Election which in those circumstances might be won by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Comments from Conservative Home readers

Many of the people who comment regularly on the Conservative Home website hold passionately strong anti-EU views. Accordingly I was not surprised that the article generated 418 comments (as of 19 May 2018). While comments are periodically removed from Conservative Home, they should be available for several months. They can be read below the original piece on Conservative Home.

The comments illustrate a widespread inability to distinguish between the legal position and what may be politically expedient, because many commenters insisted that MPs must do what their constituents want.

There were of course a few favourable comments from people who agreed with my analysis.

 

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