Tory peer Ros Altmann: Why no-deal Brexit would betray democracy

The Government has said it intends to proceed with a no-deal Brexit, if it cannot agree a Withdrawal Arrangement with the EU. This would be a total betrayal of our democracy.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds his first Cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

It has been said that respecting our democracy means we must leave, with or without a deal, on October 31. That is simply not true. For the past three years, the Government has been working to honour the result of the 2016 referendum, but this has led to deep divisions in our society and a fracturing of mainstream political parties.

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The referendum result was based on a campaign that promised leaving the EU would mean restoring our national sovereignty and would result in more free trade deals and more money to spend on our priorities. However, the reality has turned out very different from the promises made by the Leave campaign. Yes, it is right to try to deliver the ‘democratic’ verdict of the people, expressed in 2016. But faith in democracy would not be undermined if Brexit is not ‘delivered’ on that date – in fact, trying to leave without a deal would actually be a betrayal of democracy.

Conservative peer Ros Altmann has warned against pursuing a no-deal Brexit.

Our country must not be forced into this course of action on a false premise, as seems to be currently happening. The Government has no democratic mandate for a No Deal Brexit. Many extreme Brexiteers are claiming the British people must accept this because it is what the majority voted for, but the facts simply do not support this argument.

The Chancellor has announced plans to spend billions of pounds in preparing for the no-deal Brexit that is being threatened – even though the Prime Minister has said there is only a million to one chance of it happening. This simply does not all stand up to scrutiny. Why spend so much money on something that is supposedly so unlikely? What is even more worrying is that all the official forecasts of the impact of leaving without an agreement indicate this would be extremely damaging to the economy, business and jobs. Why would a responsible Government be spending huge sums on a project that will make our country poorer?

The truth is that this astonishingly irresponsible course could not only undermine the livelihoods of many British citizens, it could also destroy the Conservative Party. The chaos of no-deal Brexit would undermine the Tory claims to be a responsible party of business, which can be trusted with the economy.

Even worse than this, perhaps, is that pursuing this course would itself over-ride the very Parliamentary sovereignty that many people voted to restore in the Referendum. Parliament has voted against no-deal time and again, so a Government that wants to force this course of action would be ignoring Parliament. Just in the past few months, the House of Commons rejected leaving without a deal in major defeats for the Government in votes in January 2019, in March 2019 and July 2019. In March 2019, the majority of MPs voted 312 – 308 that the Government should never leave the EU without a deal, and then voted 321 – 278 against no-deal in the next vote.

So insisting on a no-deal Brexit would mean the Government is defying the will of Parliament – this is what one might expect from tin-pot dictatorships. So much for restoring power and sovereignty to our Parliament.

There is simply no democratic mandate for leaving the EU without an agreed deal. The 2016 Referendum Leave campaign, the result of which is being relied upon as the mandate for Brexit, promised voters there would be a good deal. It never suggested people would be voting to leave the EU without any deal at all. It certainly did not suggest we would lose all our free trade agreements and risk the break-up of the United Kingdom because of problems with the Irish border. It was not said that we would spend billions of pounds preparing for leaving the EU without a deal. Many of the impacts of no-deal were not presented to the population, including the problems created for the automobile industry, the agriculture and food sectors, aviation, transport and the services sector. No-deal is just not the mandate on which the Leave campaign won the support of the majority of UK voters.

In addition to Parliament opposing no-deal since 2016, the public has indicated it does not support leaving without a deal either. Every democratic voting opportunity since the Referendum result has seen the majority of British voters support parties that are against no-deal

In the 2017 General Election, 53.2 per cent of voters supported parties that opposed a no-deal Brexit and only 45.1 per cent voted for the Conservatives, DUP or UKIP who might support it. In the 2018 local elections, parties that would accept a no-deal Brexit lost 158 councils, while those parties clearly opposed to leaving without a deal gained 162 councils.

Finally, in the 2019 EU Elections, 54.4 per cent of voters backed parties which are opposed to no-deal Brexit and only 44 per cent backed parties which would accept no-deal – including the Brexit Party, Conservatives or UKIP.

It should therefore be clear that if the Government tries to force the UK to leave the EU without an Agreement on October 31, as it is currently threatening, then it is denying the democratic votes of the British people and is also – while it professes to want to restore Parliamentary sovereignty to the UK Parliament – expressly ignoring the will of our elected Parliament, in which the majority is opposed to a No Deal Brexit.

The Government needs to stop the game of bluff and get on with facing reality.

If the Government cannot find a responsible way forward, it must find a democratic solution, rather than trying to over-ride democracy for its own ends.

Baroness Ros Altmann CBE is a Conservative peer and a former minister for Pensions and Child Maintenance.