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Governing with Consent?

When the UK voted to leave the EU, many people had queued outside the polling booths as the heavens opened to Shakespearian thunder and rain. They had listened for the best part of two years before and during an intensely fought referendum campaign to their rulers supported by rich and powerful international friends, warning about the economic disasters that would befall them if they dared to leave. The same message had been pumped over the airwaves in the ‘semi-public’ BBC, in the government’s mailshots to every household across the country, and in great and imposing official reports, forecasts and analyses by the treasury, the bank of England and the lobbies for big international business and the banks. All of these appeared to have gone beyond what would normally be allowed under election law. The message was stark. Leaving the EU and the protections of the Single Market and the Customs Union would lead to an economic Armageddon. The people considered what they were told. And, having listened, patiently and quietly, they queued to cast their vote. They voted to leave.

This week, the refusal by parliament and government to recognise that their authority comes from the voters has led to the humiliation of the 5th richest economy in the world, the supplicant of the EU 27, now about to fall into recession.

MPs in all parties, barring around a third of the Conservatives, a handful of Labour and the DUP, have brought the greatest parliament in the world to its knees, through duplicitous attempts to overturn the referendum result. They now believe they are in sight of forcing voters to accept what a majority of them deliberately chose to leave. The various ‘fixes’ on which MPs are intent involve huge swathes of the British economy staying under EU law and being subject to the ECJ – whether in the Customs Union championed by Mr Corbyn and his ‘concerned’ Labour MPs or in the European Economic Area (the Customs Union and the Single Market) the Norway Option, championed by the Tory and Blairite remain MPs, both of which would leave the UK under swathes of UK law, or Mrs May’s deal from which there would be no escape – a customs union by the back door and Northern Ireland sacrificed to the Single Market. For a large group of Conservative, DUP and some Labour MPs, there is another way, the Malthouse compromise to exit formally on 29 March, but in practice stay under the EU as now, temporarily, to avoid the turbulence of a sudden exit, for the period of the transition, sacrificing sovereignty in the short term, for the long term gain of freedom, the freedom for which people voted. It says oodles for the character of Britain’s MPs, that this compromise, which respects the authority of voters, has not been seriously considered by Opposition parties or Mrs May’s government.

The MPs’ unconstitutional behaviour, to which Jonathan Clark draws attention today, is of a piece with that of their government. Time and again, the prime minister has broken the rules of collective cabinet responsibility in the hope of driving through ‘her’ deal. The first attempt was the July Chequers ‘agreement’, on which she had not consulted the ministers of the crown, who were locked into her official country residence and obliged to agree or resign. The second attempt was made with the Withdrawal Agreement, brought back from Brussels, and like its Chequers predecessor, concealed until the eleventh hour from the very ministers who would be answerable to parliament and voters for it. They were then summoned individually to look at the 585 pp. document under lock and key in No. 10, it seems, without the right to consult more widely, before being asked to rubber stamp it at the cabinet. The chaos that has ensued is partly down to the refusal to observe the rule of collective cabinet responsibility. But it is also the result of the failure by government ministers to recognise their and the government’s authority to act is derived from the voters, and their failure to recommend a withdrawal plan that reflects the vote.

In better days, when the Conservative Party governed successfully, its prime ministers recognised where their authority came from. Their task involved leading their country in protecting the freedoms for which Britain was the symbol. It involved reminding the MPs of that fact – that it was the people who put them in Westminster, and the people who would remove them; and of explaining that parliament had a ‘sacred trust’ to preserve the freedoms for which it stood surety. In those days there was no mystery what such freedom meant. It meant the right of the people of this country, not its parliament, not its government, to decide by whom, and under what laws, they were governed. Until both parliament and government recognize the electorate’s authority, and submit to it rather than that of the EU, the UK will be badly, or not at all, governed.


Dr Sheila Lawlor

Dr Sheila Lawlor is Politeia’s Founder and Director of Research. Her background is as an academic historian of 20th century British political history, having started her working life as research fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and Churchill College, Cambridge. Her academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War 1940-41 and for Politeia she has written on social, economic and constitutional policy.

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