Sunday, 8 April 2018

Elected representatives will do the right thing on Brexit

Nick Clegg in The Financial Times

Like the suspense in an old-fashioned cowboy film before the final gunfight, tension in Westminster is already rising as MPs prepare for the “meaningful” vote on Brexit towards the end of this year. The upcoming debates in the House of Commons will be the political equivalent of scuffles in a saloon, harbingers of the real showdown to come. 

Many MPs — the majority of whom would probably slip the noose of Brexit if only they knew how — are still waiting, hoping, that something might turn up. Perhaps public opinion will shift decisively against Brexit before the vote? Maybe the economic damage will suddenly become more obvious? Or could the gory details of the Brexit deal itself prompt people to think again? 

The truth, alas, is much harsher. Public opinion has shifted a little in favour of the Remain camp, and a lot towards wider concern about the impact of Brexit on the NHS and the economy. But it remains firmly enveloped in an indifference towards the details of the negotiations, and a sullen belief that politicians should just “get on with it”. Advertising campaigns by anti-Brexit groups will not, on their own, shift opinion in a big way. 

Equally, while there are abundant signs that Brexit has already had a chilling effect on economic growth, it has not (yet) done so in a dramatic enough fashion to force a rethink. And those who hope for a level of unforgiving detail in the Brexit deal will hope in vain: there is a shared interest between David Davis and Michel Barnier not to scare the horses, either in Westminster or the European Parliament, before the definitive votes this winter. They both want a deal, and both are happy to delay the really tricky choices about the future EU-UK relationship until after parliamentarians can do anything about it. 

So MPs will have nowhere to hide. They are unlikely to be rescued by last minute developments. They will be left alone with their own consciences. And this is exactly as it should be: the vote on the government’s Brexit deal will be like no other in recent history, touching on every vital economic, security and constitutional feature of our country. That is why John Major was right to call for a free vote for MPs, and to suggest that, in the absence of an unwhipped vote, MPs should put the final deal to another vote of the people instead. 

As MPs limber up to make their choice, they can at least be sure of one thing: all of the reasons which (they will be told) oblige them to support the deal will be false. Some newspapers will screech that a vote against the deal is a vote to put Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street, when in truth the Fixed Term Parliament Act protects the government from an instant election. 

Commentators will opine that without a deal the UK will crash out of the EU on March 29 next year, when it is obvious that the EU27 would give the UK more time. And the repeated allegation that a vote to withhold parliamentary consent would “defy the will of the people” ignores the fact that the version of Brexit presented to MPs will be utterly different to the version promised to voters, and that the world has changed dramatically since 2016. 

The notion, for instance, that MPs should not be allowed to take into account America’s lurch to protectionism under President Donald Trump when assessing the best way forward is absurd. One of the greatest hallmarks of a healthy democracy, as opposed to rigid ideological regimes, is an ability to adapt in the face of changing circumstances. Democracies self-correct in a way which theocracies and authoritarian systems cannot. To deny MPs the right to make such judgments is an abrogation of democracy. 

In the end, it comes down to a judgment by our elected representatives to do what they believe to be best for those they serve. Given the universal cynicism with which politicians are viewed, my hunch is that this is one bit of the Brexit jigsaw which is too readily overlooked. In the end, most MPs, most of the time, want to do the right thing.

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