Gisela Stuart: Yes, Brexit is difficult. But that is no excuse for not doing your jobs

Posted On: 
5th December 2018

MPs are making the public into their political opponents and that is unlikely to end happily. They must respect the will of the people and implement the referendum result, says Gisela Stuart

MPs aren’t mere commentators, they are law makers, writes Gisela Stuart
Credit: 
PA Images

How did parliament get itself into this mess? MPs at Westminster are still fighting the outcome of the June 2016 referendum as well as Mrs May and her government’s current deal which purports to implement it.

Referendums don’t neatly fit into our system, but with or without them parliamentary sovereignty has never been about MPs being sovereign. It’s the people who are and national referendum results have always been implemented. Wales was given more powers, Scotland remained part of the United Kingdom, the election system for Westminster wasn’t changed and we are leaving the European Union. All these were rational decisions about how we are governed.

The 29 months since the referendum on our membership of the European Union have produced muddle, exhaustion, anger and confusion at Westminster, but there is little evidence that the voters have significantly changed their minds.

A seasoned politician once told me that “voters have a right to expect solutions and certainties from their MPs, not doubts. They have enough doubts themselves”.

Procedures and debates are used as a proxy for attempting to overturn the referendum result. Leaving is too difficult or just impossible, it is said. Only a few MPs are prepared to state directly what they believe – too many claiming they respect the result while campaigning for another referendum or doing their best to limit what they perceive to be the damage caused by the public’s mistake in voting to Leave.

MPs aren’t mere commentators, they are law makers. But this isn’t obvious from much of the public debate. The BBC is resorting to having “fact checkers” in the absence of robust informed dialogue. All this is undermining trust and poisons the well of democracy.

The voters know that compromises are always necessary. After the inconclusive general election of 2010, no one had voted for a coalition government. That was the one thing not on the ballot paper. But it was accepted.

There is something wrong about the way the Brexit debate has been framed. We have never felt it necessary to only implement a proportion of any of the previous referendum outcomes since 1973. There are many who voted Leave who feel that they are being offered a deal which keeps all our obligations but grants none of the freedoms.

Even after hard fought elections, the focus is usually on reaching consensus to govern. Not so since 2016. MPs are clearly struggling with the public’s vote to Leave. It wasn’t what they expected. Westminster has played a merry dance, talking to itself and negotiating with each other. They are opposing the electorate as they would oppose another political party. Finding arguments to defeat or undermine or frustrate the outcome but rarely confronting the key arguments head on. They are making the public into their political opponents and that is unlikely to end happily.

It is, after all, Parliament that has been unable to find a route to deliver the referendum result. A second referendum will not solve that problem but just bring it back to the same MPs while deepening social division and undermining respect for democracy.

The European Union has calmly and quietly carved out a deal which is in their best interest. No one should blame them for that. It is our fault that we have not done the same.

Leaving the European Union means that the UK parliament has the final say over our laws and borders and that we can enter trade deals. Any settlement which locks the UK or parts of the UK into a permanent customs or other union with the EU does not deliver the referendum.

Yes, this is difficult. But in what other profession is the claim that something is difficult accepted as a reason for not doing your job. There is still time to get this right, but MPs have to decide now if when they say they are respecting the result of the referendum they mean what they say.

Gisela Stuart is the chair of Change Britain and former Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston