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The real democratic question

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  • Leadership

Yesterday my colleague Ed Cox joined the widespread condemnation of the proroguing of Parliament. We enjoy a debate at the RSA, so here is my rather different take.

The willingness of large parts of the British political and media establishment to fall into the trap being set for it by Team Johnson is remarkable. The proroguing of Parliament has been undertaken to elicit exactly the response it is receiving.

The public are being told by the opposition and various commentators and celebrities that democracy is at an end. But next week Parliament will meet and most folk will wonder what all the fuss was about.

This has the neat psychological effect of making the public more sceptical about other (more credible) warnings of doom – for example, over the consequences of no deal.

All the hysteria also helps convince the EU that the Johnson administration is willing to be big, bad and bold – something that is helpful in seeking concessions on the backstop and other matters.

Suspending Parliament narrows MPs' choices 

There were two key tactical reasons Theresa May failed to get her deal across the line.

The first was that from early on it became clear there are three options for the UK – leaving without a deal, leaving with a deal, or not leaving. None of these options has a majority in the country or Parliament.

Second, MPs could individually vote for whatever options they wanted without having to take responsibility for the overall outcome, which was deadlock.

But after the EU summit in October, MPs will face a clear choice. Either support the new deal Boris Johnson has managed to negotiate (probably substantively similar to the May deal but superficially different) or effectively vote for leaving with no deal.

In other words, in a situation with three options the one which is consistently the most popular among the general population (remain/second referendum) will simply not be up for consideration.

It is this - not the loss of four Parliamentary days from the timetable – that is the real democratic issue.

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  • I have seen no evidence to suggest that remain/second referendum is the most popular choice amount the general population. In fact quite the reverse. Most of England outside London is still strongly for leaving. During the referendum the leave campaign conducted polls (not published for obvious reasons) almost weekly their sample was 20,000+ this contrasted sharply with newspaper polls by YoGov and the rest whose samples were only 2,000+. These small samples are inadequate and simply cannot and did not pick up the large regional swings around the country. 

    So yes we have a democratic issue in that Parliament has failed to carry the instruction given to them over three years ago. 


  • Good analysis, Matthew.

    But the 'second referendum' approach, which you implicitly support, would face the same problem that parliament failed to overcome - how do you offer three alternatives and get a majority for any one?

  • Everyone talks as though 'the deal' is the end of the matter, and hence most desirable.  In fact, the deal makes arrangements for how we are to treat some European entities (security, euratom, etc, etc) and then an agreement to behave as though we were still in the EU for the next 21 months, while the actual deal about how we are to trade with the EU is worked out.  For this we have to risk losing Northern Ireland as part of the UK within the next generation.  Hence ruling out the option of 'no deal' is inaccurate, and leaves only the option of withdrawing article 50.

  • Jacob. I think it is many MPs (rather than the Government) who lied. Having at first said they would honour it; many have since chosen to ignore the referendum vote - the most decisive public vote (with over 50% in favour) I believe since 1945. My MP is a Remainer - but he has integrity and since 2016 has voted in line with the democratically expressed wishes of his constituents. When, due to the "we know best" mentality (or worse motives) of some MPs - from amongst seemingly the worst bunch ever since the Victorian era - we have made no real progress in over three years, it is not surprising that someone taking the situation by the scruff of the neck is apparently popular with the vast majority of the public, even if not with some fellow MPs.

  • There were clear threats of the recess being cancelled in order to allow more time to legislatively block a no-deal. This is why it is not a loss of four days which is the issue, but Parliament's control of its time.This is an issue within itself, while drawing in those who wish to remain or block no-deal in opposition. The debate about why a monarch, or effectively the PM, has this authority is beginning already.

    It is a common mistake for intelligent people to think that an adversary is playing three dimensional chess. It is much more likely the their hand was forced by the threat of legislation to their desire to stay in power and the survival of the Conservative party.

    Remain being removed as an option would only be a democratic issue once all ways of trying to fulfill the referendum have been exhausted. There is a deal that would pass the house, that is staying in a single market and customs union. This position being rejected for Conservative electoral reasons, largely the long term threat of the Brexit party to their right. A democratic route to remain has only been offered by Labour in their proposition of a deal which would legally fulfill the referendum with a confirmatory vote. It is difficult for some to swallow, but clashes of partisan positions and brexit and democratic reality have always been difficult

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