Governments plan for some pretty unlikely things. They plan for pandemics, nuclear wars, conventional wars, natural disasters, the sudden deaths of leaders, and all sorts of other things. For some of these, nuclear war for example, planning for them plausibly makes them less likely. But whether or not planning for something makes it less likely, it’s good to plan. It’s become fairly clear that the British government didn’t have much of a plan for what to do if we voted to leave the EU in the referendum last June. The polls were pretty close beforehand and there was a significant chance we’d vote to leave, so I think not having a plan was pretty irresponsible. But here we are.
I voted to stay in the EU, and it wasn’t a difficult decision for me. I’ve been strongly in favour of the UK remaining in the EU for a long time. Regular readers of this blog may have picked up on that already. It also seems that most MPs wanted to stay in the EU too, or at least they used to say they did. It’s unclear whether Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn were sincere in the their support of remaining in the EU before the referendum, but the received wisdom is that, like capital punishment, leaving the EU is one of those things that’s more popular with the general public than with MPs. I don’t really want to make the case that leaving the EU was a bad idea here, though, or even to debate the wisdom of holding the referendum in the first place. I want to talk about how MPs should have responded to the Leave vote.
Essentially, I think they should have treated it like any other unexpected event that they didn’t have a plan for and which most of them didn’t want. Like an asteroid heading for the Earth, or a pandemic, or the Royal family all dying in a plane crash, assuming they didn’t have a plan for those things.
One thing to decide is who’s in charge. It turns out we didn’t know who was in charge, but the courts decided that Parliament was at least partly in charge, because leaving the EU would involve changing laws and the executive isn’t allowed to do that by itself. The courts ruled that we couldn’t leave the EU without Parliament voting for it.
Another thing to decide is what kind of deadline we’re working to. When a country triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, they’ve got two years to negotiate an arrangement with the rest of the EU and after those two years they’re out. The original referendum bill could have authorized or even required the executive to activate Article 50 immediately or within a specific timeframe after a Leave vote, but it didn’t. David Cameron might have tried activating it anyway just after the vote, but he didn’t. He resigned and left the problem to other people. Basically the answer is that there’s no firm deadline until Parliament votes to start the clock. Presumably waiting for too long would be a bit cheeky, but there’s no fixed deadline for them. That’s lucky, because it gives them time to come up with a plan, which, as we’ve said, they didn’t already have.
The Government does seem to have some kind of plan now. It’s basically what people call “hard Brexit”: we leave the EU and the single market, and where this leaves gaps in our relationships with other countries we renegotiate them more or less from scratch. That’s not what all the Leave campaigners wanted: a lot wanted to stay in the single market. But hard Brexit seems to be the Government’s preferred option. They haven’t said whether they plan to forcibly relocate the three million EU nationals living in the UK, possibly because they want to use this as a bargaining chip in the negotiations. Maybe some MPs (and peers) would prefer to be like Norway or Switzerland, or would at least like to commit to not doing the forced relocations. If they do, they’re in luck! The executive can’t leave the EU without a vote, and Parliament can withhold the vote until the executive agrees to a plan Parliament is happy with. They can put the conditions into the law they vote for too, if they like. They could even refuse to leave the EU at all, overruling the will of the people for what they believe to be the good of the people. That would presumably undermine the public’s faith in our democratic processes somewhat, but democracies have survived worse. Parliament is sovereign and if they really think any kind of Brexit would be worse than letting democracy take the hit, then they’ve got that option.
So here’s what I think Parliament should do. They should take their time and debate the issue properly until they’ve come up with a plan they’re happy with. That plan will probably involve leaving the EU, because of the referendum result. If they’d had a plan before the referendum, the process would have been quicker. (And if they’d told us what it was, we might have voted differently. See the earlier comment about planning for nuclear war making nuclear war less likely.) They didn’t have a plan, and that’s on them, but we are where we are and they have plenty of time to debate it and come up with something not totally awful.
But it seems that’s not how it’ll go. MPs are voting on Wednesday to let the Government do its hard Brexit, and the House of Lords is expected to acquiesce as well. MPs aren’t happy with the plan, and they’ll debate some amendments, but when the amendments are defeated they’ll vote for the unamended bill that they don’t support, because they’re cowards and they don’t understand the situation they’re in and the responsibility they have. The public has no say in what kind of Brexit we do, and Parliament is giving up its say. Taking Back Control is not getting off to a good start.