What if the Brexit camp wins the referendum on 23 June, as some polls are currently scaring sterling by suggesting? Could pro-remain MPs do as one anonymous minister told the BBC and use their parliamentary majority in a “reverse Maastricht” to protect UK access to the EU single market as part of the withdrawal?
They would do so, according to today’s enjoyable speculation, because they have an overwhelming cross-party majority to do so – 454 to 147 mostly rightwing Tories, on some calculations – and because they will be able to claim Brexit has not put up a coherent policy for Britain’s trade relationship with Brussels. It has put up many options, but has no mandate for many of them.
The very thought of such defiance – here’s the BBC’s James Landale’s account – will have Brexiteers spluttering in their foreign coffee. How dare those MPs defy what will, they hope, be the sovereign will of the British people as expressed through the ballot box?
The short answer to that is simple: of course parliament can defy the referendum result, because the British constitution clearly states that “the crown in parliament” – ie a majority of elected MPs, subject to whatever the Lords tries to moderate – is sovereign.
Since Brexiteers claim to revere the ancient British constitution, and “sovereignty” is what it’s all about – not an excess of Polish plumbers or Bangladeshi restaurants – they can hardly complain about its correct and immaculate application.
There’s a second, telling point, which you will instantly remember when I point it out. Because parliament is sovereign, it can’t be bound, even by a referendum result. Legally speaking, the vote is only advisory.
So much for the legal situation by which many rigid minds think these matters are resolved. In the practical world of politics – politics is always more practical than theoretical – could it be done, if there was the political will among assorted parties to do so?
The short answer, again, is yes. Again the Brexiteers will cry outrage, but since they don’t have a coherent answer themselves it will be open to bold leaders to seize the initiative and sort things out the best way they can.
Remember, even the mud-splattered figure of Michael Gove admitted at the weekend that Britain would still be in the EU when the 2020 election takes place, and that withdrawal would be protracted and messy. Remember too that all sorts of awkward events would follow a Brexit vote.
Sterling would take a hit, so would inward investment and, probably, exports. The Bank of England is making plans. Foreign holders of UK assets – they hold a lot of cash and debt, lots of property of one kind or another – will look at the balance of payments on traded goods and levels of government debt and start moving on, as footloose foreigners do everywhere. They’re not here for the weather. Unions arerightly anxious.
So it would be stormy. “We would accept the mandate of the people to leave the EU,” says one unnamed minister, but everything else would be negotiable. Since they regard access to the EU single market as the most important component of the deal, that is what they would insist on. A majority of MPs from Labour, Lib Dem, Tories (not backbench Tories) and assorted nationalists, notably the 56-strong SNP contingent (suspended MPs included), could then insist on embracing the Norwegian model, one of the many mooted as the ideal relationship by the Brexit campaign.
Yes, I know, there are many others, including the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) open market scenario. But that is unlikely to stand up to much exposure to the sunlight that would pour through every British window every day after a Brexit triumph – east and west facing windows at the same time, too.
So it would be up to David Cameron and his advisers to decide how best to proceed. Yes, I realise that amateur plotters in the Tory ranks are planning to unseat Cameron if he loses, and some of them if he wins – Matthew D’Ancona is urging Dave to get tough. Does he have it in him? Not sure, but here’s hoping.
This has been a damaging period for Tory unity and many nasty things have been said on both sides. But come the day a majority of MPs will realise that their more swivel-eyed colleagues are best left to their own devices while the humdrum reality of day-to-day real life and government is resumed. If Brexit wins there would be much to do, all day and every day, and a country to run as well.
Cameron would look the best man to do the job and it would be his duty not to slope off because it was his decision alone that dropped us into this referendum shambles, done for party tactical reasons. In normal times that would be enough to finish him off, but these are not normal.
Jeremy Corbyn regularly shows how unsuited he is for any heavy lifting – he’s getting the worst of both worlds by campaigning only feebly against Brexit – and neither Boris Trump nor Govey have emerged with much dignity from the campaign. I’d watch that Theresa May if I were you, Dave, but why wouldn’t she want Cameron to clean up his own dirty kitchen before taking over and giving it a makeover?
Tory papers like the Mail and Telegraph are outraged by the attacks made over the weekend by the likes of Sir John Major. Norman Tebbit – the Tory Tony Benn, disloyal to the point of treachery but not quite crossing the fellow travellers’ Ukip line – is fuming. It would be funny if it were not serious.
Back to the Maastricht rebellion, which so disfigured and weakened decent John Major’s years in office in the 90s when, like Cameron now, he only had a wafer-thin majority. Actually Major did pretty well at the treaty negotiations, his opt-outs kept us out of the euro among other things. Were the ingrates grateful? Of course not. As Ken Clarke once witheringly put it, they are middle-aged (now elderly) men who feel their lives have not been sufficiently exciting.
The Maastricht years were a shambles, good sport for reporters like me, but grim. Yet it is diehard Maastricht disloyalists like Tebbit, John “Vulcan” Redwood and dear but daft Bill Cash who are now crying loyalty; Iain Duncan Smith, who inherited Tebbit’s Chingford seat, too. No wonder Major was so scornful.
Not since Jeremy Corbyn, serial rebel in 500 votes, appealed for loyalty from old comrades to whom he had shown little has there been such cause for dry mirth. Ah, but Iain and Jeremy were doing what they believe in and what their constituents want, will come the retort. And you think that pro-remain MPs can’t say that too?
So the “reverse Maastricht” tactic is both legal and politically feasible. All it would take – the Norway model or any that looks better on the day – is leadership and willpower. Nicola Sturgeon would be a more slippery but also more reliable ally for Cameron (pause for ironic laughter) than Corbyn-led Labour.
But what about the free movement of EU labour in and out of the UK, which Norway’s deal would require us to embrace as part of the price for access? Correct, but for all its populist talk and tabloid extravagance about immigration, Brexiters have not cracked that one either. And they’ve still got to win. Two weeks to go.