Parliament could stop Brexit – but do they have the courage?

This article was originally published in The Independent, here on July 2, 2016.


Less than two weeks ago around half of British voters backed exit and around half backed remain. Later, over 4 million people signed the online petition calling for a second referendum.

“Regrexit” trended on Twitter. Boris Johnston, in a flurry of counter-Churchillian flare, proclaimed that he would not fight for the Tory leadership on the benches, let alone the beaches.

Boris’s surrender encouraged “CowardBoris’ to trend on Twitter, threatening to stain the blonde bombshell’s reputation. The lack of fight so neatly contrasts his earlier criticism of Obama’a placement of Winston’s bust in the Whitehouse.

The white flag of Boris has emboldened the Remainers. Churchill, they say, would have fought and lost, but would have never capitulated so meekly. Remainers will not go down so quietly.

But does it all matter? Will Brexit go ahead as the Brexiters want, or can it be stopped by the Remainers?

The truth is Brexit can go ahead, or it can be stopped. Nothing has happened that as yet that can not be undone. No law has yet passed. The path to Brexit through Article 50 is clear, but what is a path to avoid Brexit?

The referendum has political but no legal effect. A second referendum could be called, if the Parliament were to pass relevant legislation, but politically that seems an unlikely slap in the face to voters. Calling a second referendum would take courage, something many say is lacking in Westminster.

What of an early election, rather than a referendum, called and fought on the Brexit/Remain issue? Could this be possible? Would this get over a democratic deficit that ignoring the referendum would entail?

Since the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, 2011, Westminster has had set election dates. Gone are the days of a Prime Minister willy-nilly calling an election at will. The next election will take place in 2020 unless one of options provided in the 2011 legislation takes place.

The first option for an early election is to have a two thirds vote of the parliament, that is 434MPs. Alternatively if a vote of No Confidence in the Her Majesty’s Government passes and is not followed within 14 days by a vote of confidence in a Government then a new election is called. A vote of no confidence takes place on a simple majority of 326.

The last no-confidence motion to pass was Thatcher’s against Callaghan triggering the 1979 election. But remain and Brexit supporters don’t neatly fit to party lines. According to the BBC ( 158 MPs were declared Brexiters and 506 were declared Remainers. There are clearly enough MPs who support Remain for either a two-thirds vote calling for an election, or a no-confidence motion in the government to pass.

But is there enough spine, courage and organisation left in Westminster to see this happen?

Given the shambles that is the Opposition Remain can’t rely upon Labour to organise a fight in the wet paper bag, let alone manage their way out of the bag to get to Westminster and vote.

What about Remain supporting Conservatives? Could the Prime Minister himself move the motion of No Confidence?

Given current events and given David Cameron’s Remain views, it is not outside of possibilities for the Prime Minster to do so. There certainly is no legal impediment.

What a rich irony that would be if Michael Gove were to come close to winning the Tory leadership, only to have David Cameron, in his last act as PM, bring down the very government snatching it away from Michael Gove’s hands. Oh Machiavelli would laugh!

A subsequent election would be fought on one issue only – Brexit. Conservatives would rip themselves to bits. Labour would struggle to unite; the Lib Dems would try to be relevant. The SNP would not be sure which way to vote with a new Scottish referendum so tantalisingly close.

So while a new election is technically possible, it would require one thing sorely lacking: Leadership. The country would need a courageous politician; standing up prepared to take the argument to the people. The country would need a leader to mount the case for Europe that was never made.

It would take a politician to point to the Australian style points system showing how it increases not decreasing migration. The politician would have to show that a departure from the EU would scare so many businesses away that the decreasing tax revenue would see less money not more going to the NHS.

And despite the sovereignty argument, in 10 or 15 years young people would replace the older people and vote to re-join the Union raising the question “what was it all for anyway?”

But that won’t happen. The courage is not there. The unlikely script, albeit technically possible, is a fictional dream. It is so fictional that if you gave the script to the producers of Game of Thrones they’d throw it out. ‘Too far-fetched’ they’d say.

But then again maybe the best hope for the UK is for Daenerys Targaryen to mount a dragon in Wales and smoulder Westminster in a fiery breath. Maybe, just maybe leadership would follow. Sadly, the Dragon Queen is more likely than good governance just now.

Andrew MacLeod is an Australian/British dual national and a Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute of Kings College London.

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