But the referendum on our membership of the EU was different. Despite the Government writing to every household urging them to vote Remain, despite dire warnings – since shown to be unfounded – from the political, commercial and media Establishments of what would happen should we disobey, 17.4 million people voted to Leave – more than have ever voted for anything else in British history. This poses a constitutional conundrum. How should the Establishment respond when, for the first time, the democratic vote has contradicted its view?
The only way to resolve this is by honouring the decision, swiftly and in full. Frustrating the democratic will would do irreparable damage to the integrity of our democratic institutions.
That is why the Commons – including 167 Labour MPs – overwhelmingly voted to trigger Article 50 by a majority of 384.
That is why, in the 2017 election, both the Conservatives and Labour committed to delivering Brexit and won well over 80 percent of the vote. The pro-Remain Parties – the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP – all saw their number of votes fall.
That is also why Yvette Cooper’s amendment is a bad idea. It seeks to overturn centuries of constitutional precedent by giving an arbitrary group of MPs the authority to set Parliament’s timetable and introduce a new Bill forcing the Government to extend Article 50 unless a deal is agreed by February.
This plot is designed to stop Brexit. It is even being introduced in the Lords by arch-Remainer Lord Adonis. Delay would remove all incentive for the EU to negotiate further because – as any trade union official knows – it would remove all the compression from the negotiations.
We would Remain indefinitely. On the single biggest issue of the age, Parliament could not be trusted.
This may be inconsequential for some Labour MPs. They voted Remain. They still want to Remain. Ignoring the largest democratic verdict ever reached in British history is a small price to pay for that. But they should think twice.
Firstly, they should remember that “no deal” on March 30 is not an end state.
There is nothing to stop the EU and the UK negotiating a trade agreement once we have left.
Conservative colleagues and I have outlined this in “A Better Deal”, urging the Government to accelerate preparations for WTO terms but, in parallel, to present the EU with the legal text of a wide-ranging, zero-tariff Free Trade Agreement, as offered by Donald Tusk in March 2018.
Under Article XXIV of the WTO’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, so long as the UK and EU agree to an FTA and notify the WTO of a sufficiently detailed plan and schedule for the FTA as soon as possible, we could even maintain our current zero-tariff, zero-quantitative restrictions arrangements while the new deal was being negotiated.
This strategy should command cross-party support. It alleviates the risk of high tariffs, minimises the disruption of no deal and delivers Brexit on time and in full.
The biggest single threat to jobs comes from uncertainty. Leaving on WTO terms on March 29 provides certainty and we already know from authorities in Calais and Dover, for example, that they are prepared. Delaying and prevaricating will do nothing but leave employers in limbo yet longer.
Secondly, they must consider that the referendum is a double conundrum for Labour. Their canny game of “constructive ambiguity” – appearing pro-Brexit in the North and pro-Remain in the South – may have served them well in the last election, but they cannot get away with it again.
They must choose a side, urgently.
Backing the Cooper amendment would be a choice. It would be choosing Remain. If Labour MPs consider where their votes come from, they will see that this would be most unwise.
Based on Prof Chris Hanretty’s analysis of the referendum result, 158 – or 60% – of Labour’s 262 seats voted Leave.
The situation is even starker when one looks at marginal seats. Of the 100 Conservative seats with the smallest majority in which Labour came second, 78 voted Leave.
Of those, 73 were more strongly for Leave than the national picture. Over half of them have majorities under 5,000.
These are the kind of seats which Labour needs in order to win a General Election.
What chance will a candidate have, arriving in the constituency as a representative of the Party which deliberately thwarted Brexit, keeping the UK in the EU in defiance of their wishes?
This week saw the 95th anniversary of Ramsay MacDonald forming the first Labour Government. If it wants to form another, it must not indulge in unprecedented procedural chicanery. It must rise above Parliamentary gamesmanship and deliver the Brexit its electors continue to demand.
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