New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Election 2024
  2. UK Politics
18 March 2015updated 07 Jun 2021 5:13pm

Even God can’t save MPs from having to make a decision on Brexit

By Patrick Maguire

Opponents of no-deal in the Commons have a plan. No, not the opposition leaders, the other ones, on the backbenches: Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Frank Field, Norman Lamb, Angus MacNeil and Caroline Spelman have written to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to request he chair a citizens’ assembly on Brexit. 

The idea, if you want to dignify it by calling it an idea, is as follows: a representative jury of members of the public, overseen by Welby, would listen to evidence – and, heartwarmingly, each other! – before making a series of recommendations on Brexit. Cooper and her colleagues tell Welby that “a process which involves a bit less shouting and a bit more listening and considering” could prove a “helpful supplement to parliamentary democracy”. 

There are lots of problems with this proposal, not least how late in the Article 50 process it has come: it is telling that the group’s letter to Welby, in suggesting that their hypothetical assembly meet before and after 31 October, presupposes a further extension, which is far from guaranteed.

Then, as Welby himself acknowledges in his reply, there is the question of whether the scheme is really “a Trojan horse intended to delay or prevent Brexit in any particular form”. It would be unfair, not to mention straightforwardly wrong, to characterise the six signatories as continuity Remainers. Field, of course, is a Leaver of long standing, while Cooper, Spelman and Lamb have never said they want to stop Brexit. 

Yet what unites them all – including Field – is both a desire to stop no-deal, and a willingness to vote against it in theory, as all six have done at various points in the Brexit process, or legislate to delay it, as Cooper did. The scheme is quite obviously intended to delay a particular form of Brexit. Welby knows that, and the six MPs in question know that. They wouldn’t be proposing it otherwise. 

But, with the exception of Field, what none have been able to do, or shown any real willingness to do, is incur the political pain of voting for something that will eliminate the prospect of a no-deal Brexit for good: a deal, or the revocation of Article 50. Indeed, Lamb and MacNeil were the only MPs in their parties, the Lib Dems and the SNP respectively, not to vote for the latter.

And so we return, for the umpteenth time, to the question at the heart of every earnest parliamentary drive to “stop no deal”. MPs need to find an alternative, assemble a majority for it, and corral that majority to vote it through on the floor of the Commons. Just how they would do this in a political climate that Cooper, Benn, et al (to their credit) concede is polarised to the point of complete gridlock is another question entirely. Ditto the problem of legitimising whatever solution the assembly came up with in the eyes an executive that is one of the poles. 

Ultimately, no amount of triaging by mediators MPs consider above the party political fray but nonetheless in the Remain firmament – be that John Bercow, Justin Welby or Ken Clarke – is going to absolve MPs of having to make that painful choice. As long as proposals like this are made with a straight face, it is hard to escape the conclusion that they are not yet prepared to do so. 

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy