On Wednesday night, the House of Commons overwhelmingly voted to support the Government’s ‘Article 50’ Bill. For a longstanding Eurosceptic, who played a part in securing the referendum, this was a magic moment, and one that, as much as I had hoped for it, I doubted I would ever see.
The Bill is the direct product of the recent Supreme Court ruling, itself sparked by the High Court in November. Whilst perturbed by the latter at the time, over the intervening months my concerns have subsided. My opinion remains that the Royal Prerogative holds for agreeing international treaties. But as someone who strongly supports Parliamentary sovereignty and who welcomes the Commons’ growing role in our foreign policy, it is difficult to oppose the idea that MPs should have their input. In any case, the Supreme Court provided some useful clarity in other areas, most notably on the role (or lack) of the devolved administrations, which might have proved a distraction further down the line.
The Bill’s passage through the Commons this week has also thrown into sharp relief the differing pulls on MPs’ loyalties.
For many MPs, there has clearly been a tussle between their heart and their head, not least because fewer than 25% of MPs supported ‘leave’ during the referendum campaign. Moreover, let no-one now say that the EU is a faultline only for the Conservative Party, as it is Labour which is riven on this issue this week. By contrast, the Conservatives are now more united than they have been for a long time.
I had supported the ‘leave’ campaign, represent a constituency which voted to leave (by almost 70%) and was voting with my party whip. Yet for others there was a dilemma: Edmund Burke’s famous speech in Bristol was referenced multiple times during the debate, as MPs tried to decide whether they were their constituents’ representatives or delegates.
By passing the EU Referendum Act 2015 (as I argued in the debate), MPs had created a ‘contract’ between themselves and the electorate to implement the outcome of the referendum. In this sense, MPs rendered themselves delegates on the narrow issue of whether to remain or leave the EU, and I am glad the majority of MPs appear also to have come to this conclusion. It would be very serious for our democracy if Parliament were to frustrate the people’s choice – especially if you contend that the electorate voted to leave because they felt politicians had become too remote.
Some MPs used their speeches to advance surprising arguments. Scottish National Party MPs spoke of their outrage that Scotland faces being unwillingly ‘dragged’ out of the Single Market, despite the fact this is exactly what would have happened had they won the 2014 independence referendum. Moreover, for all the SNP’s enthusiasm for ‘pooled sovereignty’ with the rest of the EU, I am yet to hear a good explanation from the SNP as to why pooled sovereignty with the rest of the UK is somehow undesirable.
Furthermore, many ‘remain’ Labour MPs seem to have become late converts to the importance of Parliamentary sovereignty, which was the key motivating factor for millions of ‘leave’ voters in the referendum. This is despite their having lined up behind Gordon Brown to surrender vast swathes of our sovereignty when they voted to support the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. In that same year, the Liberal Democrats campaigned for a ‘real referendum’ on EU membership, though they do not now seem ready to accept the outcome.
Although the vote passed easily this week, we should keep our feet on the ground. The Bill returns for its remaining Commons stages next week, and all eyes will be on which amendments are selected for discussion. The Government hopes a short and tightly-worded Bill will make it unamendable, but – as the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy has pointed out – such Bills are similar to unsinkable ships and foolproof plans.
A real test will come when the Bill clears the Commons and passes into the Lords. Peers would be well-advised not to hamper its passage, not least because the Bill represents the largest single expression of democratic will in our country’s history. Strong support from the elected lower House will hopefully inform their decisions.
All being well, the Government should be on track to meet its deadline of triggering Article 50 by the end next month – a date around 10th March is looking likely. I look forward to beginning the project of leaving the European Union, a job of enormous undertaking which cannot start soon enough.