A BuzzFeed report on EU officials’ responses to the past couple of days of UK political developments has just the best punchline.
“This Government wrote to every household prior to the referendum, promising that the outcome of the referendum would be implemented.”
Every pro-Remain petition that I’ve signed has resulted in a boilerplate reply from DExEU containing a line like this, and the latest is no different. But it completely undermines the Government’s argument that as the referendum was advisory there’s no need to overturn the result because of illegal campaign activity. They’re effectively saying that the referendum was binding because of the Government’s prior promise to implement its results—but if it was binding then the Electoral Commission’s findings should mean that it gets declared void.
They’re also implying that a statement by the Executive making the referendum binding overruled the express wishes of Parliament to make it advisory. I know that’s par for the course in our modern times of total government domination to the point of contempt of Parliament, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that it completely ignores and contradicts our Westminster system of parliamentary democracy.
One thing I got sick of hearing over recent days was Labour and the Tories banging on about how various options were impossible because they went against their manifestos. Neither party won the 2017 election. The Tories are only in government with the support of an entirely different party. Their 2017 manifestos are obsolete.
You might as well say that Labour should be bound by the 1983 manifesto. Come to think of it, it seems to be already. That’s the one that Corbyn entered parliament on, and the one where Labour vowed to take Britain out of the EEC: the longest suicide note in history.
It’s been a little overlooked in the focus on the indicative votes in Parliament this week, but the vote on the statutory instrument to change the date of Brexit was gobsmacking: less than half of Conservative MPs voted for a Three Line Whip on extending the date. If it hadn’t gone through, the UK would have been in an unholy legal mess after 29 March: we would still have been in the EU until at least 12 April, but reams of domestic legislation would been operating as if we’d left. It would have been even more self-sabotaging than a straight No Deal exit. And 93 Tories (and Kate Hoey, and the DUP) voted for that bizarre outcome, and 71 more couldn’t be bothered to prevent it.
Leaving with a customs union was one of the least-rejected options in the indicative votes, and is a marginally less awful prospect than leaving on the Withdrawal Agreement alone. But even if it does keep the border in Ireland open, leaving without freedom of movement is still a pretty bleak prospect. It could mean that you can cross the border in Ireland freely, but if you want to actually do anything in the UK other than spend money or travel around, like see a doctor or rent a flat or work or study: papers, please. All it would take is just the slightest expansion of the Hostile Environment to encompass... everyone.
Watching Ian Dunt’s Twitter feed this afternoon, and a few minutes of the video feed from the Commons, was nerve-racking. Theresa May gave her closing speech in favour (yet again) of the Withdrawal Agreement, doing her darnedest to tempt Labour Leave MPs into voting for something that would guarantee a Brexit dictated by whichever ghastly Brexiter succeeds her as Tory leader. Even if it did get voted down, there was still no guarantee it wouldn’t be No Deal in a fortnight.
In the end it was Ayes 286, Noes 344, and the moment of reckoning was postponed again. This time only 34 Tories voted against the Withdrawal Agreement. If they’d voted for it, all other things being equal, then the vote would have been 320–310 in favour. There were also five Labour votes for the Withdrawal Agreement. If they’d voted against it in the same scenario then the vote would have been 315–315. And then John Bercow would have had the casting vote.
So now we’re back to being a fortnight from a possible No Deal. The risk is still there until we have an agreed long extension or have pulled the handbrake, as the SNP’s Ian Blackford put it in the House.
Still, there’s now a much better chance that we’ll get take part in the EU elections, and that’s what the Brexiters (should) dread the most about the prospect of a long extension—because Remainers will take part in greater numbers than in 2014, which will mean that the balance of UK MEPs shifts away from the Tories and Faragists.
The problem in 2014 was that Tories and Kippers turned out much more strongly than other groups. It won’t matter as much if they turn out strongly again so long as the pro-EU side does as well. Proportional representation will give them their fair share of MEPs, but no more.
There’s even a chance that everyday Leavers (rather than diehards) will stay away from the elections, as they’ll have bought the idea that we should have nothing to do with the EU. They won’t all be thinking strategically about disrupting the European Parliament the way Farage and company do.
I’m not suggesting complacency; we still have to get out the Remain vote. But we shouldn’t be defeatist about the prospect either. This could be our Blue-and-Yellow Wave.†
And that would have as big an impact on the national conversation as the 2014 European Parliament elections did. Arguably, they’re what brought us all of this in the first place.
†In all fairness I should point out how hopelessly optimistic my initial interpretation of the 2014 EU election result was. Can that really have been only five years ago?