The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

10 Jun 2019

Constitution and governance

The Brexit Party was the biggest winner in the European Parliament elections, while the Remainer vote, albeit distressingly split, clustered around the Greens and the Lib Dems – who surged ahead with their clear ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ message. Labour, without any clear message at all, suffered accordingly, and the Tory Party, with its miserable 9% of the vote, has now ramped up its internal infighting as it starts choosing a new leader.

It is arguably hardly democratic for a hundred thousand or so Tory members, unrepresentative of the population as a whole, to choose the next Prime Minister without a general election. But the Tory government of the last five years has ridden roughshod over democratic principles and practices – notably most recently in impeding many UK residents from the EU27 from voting in the European election – and so it feels utterly fanciful to imagine that a new PM would, on democratic grounds, immediately call a general election that he or she would almost certainly lose.

But it is clear from the local elections, the European elections and from more recent opinion polls, that the current composition of Parliament is now a long way from reflecting the current views of the electorate – even allowing for the distorting effects of our First Past the Post electoral system. Yet as things stand we are stuck with this Parliament for the next three years.

Why not just have a People’s Vote? We think that such a vote would be highly unpredictable – it would pitch emotion against reason, as with the last US Presidential election. On one side, personified by Farage and many on the right, it would be an emotional plea to honour the result of the 2016 vote, perhaps invoking some form of myth of betrayal.

The other side would struggle to counter this, as – even three years after the original vote – Remainers have failed to build an emotional case for remaining in the EU. ‘Freedom of movement’ does not count for much for the many millions of ‘somewhere’ people, who will never anyway travel far from their home town or village.

But a general election would also be unpredictable – but it would at least encourage a nationwide debate on the larger issues facing the country. It could begin the healing process now necessary in the UK, and much more effectively than would a People’s Vote. For, whatever the Brexit outcome, divisions and dissatisfaction will remain for a long time in the UK’s political discourse. A no deal Brexit would cause prolonged economic damage to the country and its people with the poorer being hit hardest.

Relations with the EU in other areas such as justice, security, research and foreign policy would be seriously disrupted. Remainers would be angry, as would disillusioned Leavers when they realise that Brexit has not delivered what was promised. And even with a soft Brexit – now very unlikely – the battle would go on: Leavers would cry “Betrayal, we have not really left the EU”, while Remainers, dissatisfied by the loss of control and influence, would say “What was the point? We were much better off inside the EU”.

The reality is that Brexit has itself now become the problem; it is blocking political progress. This must be addressed if the UK is to move forward. The political discourse has to move away from a narrow focus on remaining in or leaving the EU, and instead take a hard look at the long-term political issues that face the UK: growing inequality and inadequate incomes for people at the bottom, austerity and its devastating effects, alienation from the political process, the funding crisis of the NHS, the dysfunctional universal credit policy, problems in the police and justice systems – the list goes on.

The Brexit debate, in so far as it is a debate at all, needs to be informed by a consideration of these issues, which we know from surveys have always been higher up peoples’ priorities than Europe. The referendum and the Brexit debate has been an aberration that should not be allowed to crowd out any longer dealing with them.

To be fair, Corbyn and the Labour leadership have tried to move the discourse on in this way, but their Janus-like stance on Brexit itself has been catastrophically inept; it would be much better to recognise openly that the only effective way of pursuing their agenda would be to say, with the Lib Dems: “Bollocks to Brexit, let’s just get on with what really matters”.

Ultimately a general election is the only realistic way of breaking the current political logjam and, with 31 October rapidly approaching, the sooner the better – hence the current talk of forcing an early general election by a vote of no confidence in the new government (as indeed the Labour leadership has advocated).

Some moderate Tory MPs might support such a vote. Probably no party would gain a majority, and there would have to be serious, lengthy negotiations to build a coalition. Still, a new coalition would have a better chance of breaking the current parliamentary logjam on Brexit – one way or the other.

But there is one big obstacle in the way: the Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011. Under this, a general election can only be called if either two thirds of the MPs pass a resolution to this effect; or if two successive votes of no confidence in the government are passed within a 14-day period. Either of these routes presents a very high threshold.

However, there will now be an interregnum in Parliament with effectively no business being done. Opposition MPs should work together to use this opportunity to introduce a Bill to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and replace it with something similar to the previous arrangements.

Of course, the Speaker would have to co-operate in this to the extent of allowing such a Bill to be tabled. But the precedent has been set with the Cooper-Letwin European Union (Withdrawal) (No 5) Bill. We are in uncharted political waters; it could happen again.

Finally, we believe that such a Bill, if well drafted, could receive almost unanimous support from the opposition parties and most likely from several Tory MPs, and that this would be sufficient for it to be passed into law. After that the route to a General Election and to breaking the logjam (one way or the other) would become much easier.

By Stephen McCarthy and John Speed, former officials of respectively the European Investment Bank and the European Court of Auditors.


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