Tony Rossiter: Why MPs need to be honest with voters about the many flaws in Theresa May’s bad Brexit deal

The scene in the House of Commons when Theresa May lost her first meaningful vote on Brexit.
The scene in the House of Commons when Theresa May lost her first meaningful vote on Brexit.
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HERE we go again. Theresa May’s ‘meaningful vote’ can be put off no longer. In January her deal with the EU was rejected by 230 votes – the biggest government defeat in the history of Parliament.

With just 18 days to go before her self-imposed deadline of March 29, the Prime Minister has called on MPs to do their duty. They should remember Edmund Burke’s dictum: “Your representative owes you … his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

How will MPs vote on Brexit this week?

How will MPs vote on Brexit this week?

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The Withdrawal Agreement, on which MPs will vote, runs to 599 pages. I do hope that every MP has read every single page. We elect MPs to examine the facts, consider complex issues and make decisions that are in the interests of the country. That is what we pay them to do.

‘Take back control’ was a powerful slogan of the Leave campaign. So it’s pretty amazing that the Withdrawal Agreement provides for a transition period lasting until the end of 2020 (2022 at most) during which the UK will have no say in making or amending EU regulations but will have to follow them to the letter; and will remain subject to European Court of Justice jurisdiction. Far from taking back control, after March 29 we will relinquish the control and influence we currently have.

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The Agreement sets out the basis for calculating the ‘divorce bill’ which the UK will have to pay to meet its financial obligations – expected to be at least £39bn. Alongside the Withdrawal Agreement is a political declaration. It is full of warm words about the future EU/UK relationship, but lacks specific detail and has no legal force.

We would hand over large amounts of money without any guarantees about the nature of our future trade relationship with the EU. Mrs May’s deal is a very bad deal.

A lot of people are fed up with the Brexit saga, and just want to get the whole thing over and done with. That’s understandable. To keep her party together, Mrs May has allowed the Brexit debate to drag on for more than two and a half years.

It has paralysed the domestic agenda and taken resources away from other areas where urgent government action is needed. But anyone who believes that supporting Mrs May’s deal will get Brexit over is in for a nasty shock.

All the difficult issues have been kicked into the long grass and will be addressed only as part of future trade negotiations – and those could take a very long time indeed. As Sir Ivan Rogers, former British Ambassador to the EU, wrote recently: “The trade negotiations ahead will be vastly more complex and more difficult than the ones we have been through.”

So what should MPs do? If they genuinely believe that their constituents and the country will be better off with the UK outside the EU, then they should vote for Mrs May’s deal, bad as it is.

If, on the other hand, they just believe that ‘the will of the British people,’ as expressed on June 23, 2016, requires them to support Mrs May’s deal, closing off all other options, they should think again. They should pay attention to the words of Sir John Major: “The Government itself has admitted that – under any and every form of Brexit – every part of the UK will be worse off. Our country will also be weaker and less influential; and those in our society who have the least will suffer the deepest deprivation of all.” There is something lemming-like about MPs deliberately voting to weaken their own country.

MPs in Leave-voting constituencies should, unlike the government, be honest. They should explain the downside of Brexit to their constituents. Many of those constituencies have suffered industrial decline and swingeing austerity cuts that have nothing to do with the EU. These contributed to a Leave vote that was a protest against the status quo. The government, transfixed by Brexit, has done nothing to address those underlying concerns.

We should also bear in mind the referendum’s flaws. First, it was advisory. The Government was required to take it into account – not to plunge willy-nilly in a headlong dash towards an extreme interpretation of Brexit. Second, it was approved by just 37 per cent of the electorate (no minimum threshold of 40 per cent, as applied in the referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution). Third, the Leave campaign made claims (e.g. on Turkish immigration and that £350m for the NHS) that were false and elements of the campaign broke electoral law.

Referendums are not as sacrosanct as supporters of Brexit would have us believe. In 1997 a referendum narrowly approved the creation of the Welsh Assembly. Far from accepting that result, Mrs May and her Conservative colleagues continued to oppose it. We now have more information about the effects and consequences of Brexit than we had in 2016. It cannot be undemocratic to check that ‘the will of the British people’ remains the same. As David Davis, a former Brexit Secretary, has said: “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”

Tony Rossiter, from North Yorkshire, is a former diplomat and civil servant who worked predominantly at the Department of Trade and Industry.