To listen to some of the hysterical coverage of a modest assertion of democratic rights by dissident Tory MPs, one might think that some act of national betrayal had been committed by these rather herbivorous parliamentarians.
Splashed across the front of the newspapers, some of these hitherto obscure Conservative backbenchers are taking on legendary status as buccaneering mutineers on the Brexit Bounty. Some have called for their deselection; others have contented themselves with routine excoriation in the media; none of the names came as much of a surprise.
All they wanted was some say over the terms of the deal the Government might secure. It is really not so very much to ask for a supposedly “sovereign” body. So treacherous are these “rebels” that they’ve spent most of the time since the vote praising the Prime Minister’s deal and, mostly, accepting the reality of Brexit and the vote in last year’s referendum.
Thus blooded, we may expect more rebellions as the Brexit legislation grinds its way around Westminster – the Lords, too, will no doubt have their day in the sun, exercising their own perfect right to improve and amend legislation. Unless it has some strange taste for public humiliation, the Government should drop its plan to enshrine the Brexit date in legislation, and, once again, allow Parliament to do what has been promised – to “take back control”.
In a hung parliament MPs are usually more able to make their presence felt than when governments enjoy, shall we say, strong and stable majorities. This time last year this rebellion would not have mattered, as Theresa May had an overall majority. It was her own blunder in calling that unnecessary early general election that put her in the stew she is in now. That, in turn, was visited upon her because the British public does not want a “hard Brexit”. They refused her mandate to ignore the MPs, and if she and her press allies want to blame anyone for what has been happening, then they can blame the 40 per cent of the electorate who voted for Jeremy Corbyn and almost pushed her out of Downing Street.
All of this is perfectly normal democratic activity. When, in a more distant age, the Conservative Party enjoyed an in-built majority in the Lords, they defended the rights of hereditary and appointed peers to stymie the legislation of Labour governments, for example to nationalise private companies. In the case of the Commons, the Maastricht rebels in the 1990s enjoyed a heroic media profile from the allies in the press, their plucky determination judged to betoken a stout patriotism. They, arguably, undermined John Major and his government, but most conservative commentators didn’t seem to mind, nor that they were helping create the divisions that ushered Tony Blair and New Labour into power for a 13-year run. Some of them have since served in Tory cabinets. Even when they were far, far away from those years, the Tory party’s factions continued to row and fight over Europe until David Cameron begged them to “stop banging on” about it. It was second nature to them, as it has been for many years.
Indeed, every time there have been momentous changes to Britain’s relationship with Europe, both main parties have split, and rebels have appeared on all sides of the House of Commons. During the passage of the original European Communities Bill, for example, in the early 1970s when a Conservative Prime Minister, Ted Heath, was leading Britain into Europe, the small band of Powellite Tory rebels then were on the Eurosceptic side – but the Tory press was pro-Europe, so they did see much praise in print. Nor, by the same token, were they called treacherous to the nation or the like. The UK entered the EU on the back of a body of Labour rebels who defied their whips and party leadership. It stayed in the EU, in effect, in the early 1990s thanks to the support of Liberal Democrat MPs when Labour mischievously voted with the Tory eurosceptic rebels. Yet no one thought any of these various movements unpatriotic.
The point is that in any of these episodes any group of MPs or, occasionally, judges could have been labelled “enemies of the people”, “mutineers” or “traitors” to their country (as opposed to their party), and it would have been just as ludicrous throwing such offensive terms around as it has been during this process. It is a well-understood and accepted principle that MPs have a sacred duty to vote with their conscience in what they consider the national interest and that of their constituents. End of.
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It may be perfectly true that if Britain was suddenly to become a dictatorship with Boris Johnson created absolute ruler of the state, we might get a better deal from Michel Barnier. Maybe the trains would run on time too, but that is no more of an argument in favour of turning Parliament into a rubber stamp.
The point about parliamentary democracy is that it can be troublesome and messy, and on the most important issues it has to be troublesome too, precisely because those issues matter so much. We do not want a rubber-stamp Parliament, the ultimate Brexit irony; David Davis once resigned his frontbench role and his own seat to fight a lonely by-election on the very issue of the rights of Parliament. Sincere, if eccentric, he too was once a serial rebel: has he now forgotten the ideals of his own David Davis for Freedom movement?
In reality, the greatest damage to Ms May’s negotiating hand comes from the likes of Mr Johnson. The Foreign Secretary’s constant off-stage chuntering and freelance public negotiations have done nothing but harm the UK interest. So far from Mr Johnson reinforcing Theresa May’s “red lines” and preventing the UK honouring its financial commitments to the EU, the opposite has proved the case. It is Mr Johnson who has been told to “go whistle”, because, as we know now, it takes two to bargain, and, in reality, the UK will have to accept more or less what the EU will offer us. That, importantly, also means that the UK Parliament’s ability to extract better terms when the time comes will also be inhibited. So far from being some sort of constitutional crisis, that central fact – that the terms of Brexit will be mostly composed in Brussels – means that neither the Cabinet nor the rebels possess as much power over Britain’s destiny as they might fancy they do.
Mostly unnoticed, the other MPs who made a difference to the voting were Dennis Skinner and Ronnie Campbell. These Old Labour types have often voted with the Government to pass Brexit legislation, for their own reasons. Yet on this occasion they did not join the other two committed Labour Brexiters, and rebels on the opposite side, Frank Field and Kate Hoey, ensuing that the Tory rebels won the day. All of them voted with their consciences on these issues.
Whether or not it was a good or bad day for Brexit, the Brexit rebels, on all sides as it happens, delivered a good day for democracy. They should be pleased with themselves.