Who represents the 52 per cent?
It’s not just a few ‘Brexit mutineers’ – the captains are Remainers, too.
The Battle for Brexit in the UK parliament is a kind of phoney war in which top party leaders and many MPs are fighting under false colours.
Remainer MPs insist that they ‘respect the referendum result’ while doing their worst to undermine the decision to leave the EU. Labour and Tory backbenchers nobly claim that they are ‘defending parliamentary democracy’ while working to thwart the popular democracy expressed by 17.4million Leave voters.
Meanwhile, both Tory prime minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn claim that their respective parties are united behind their plans for Brexit. Yet behind this fiction they are so divided over Brexit that neither of them dares have an open debate about what the UK leaving the EU should really mean for the future of our democracy.
May has called for parliament to ‘unite’ over Brexit. The only ‘unity’ that matters there today is this: after the 2017 General Election every political party represented in the Westminster House of Commons – with the sole exception of Northern Ireland’s small and widely reviled Democratic Unionist Party – is now led and dominated by people who campaigned against Brexit in 2016, and have made clear they would do so again in a second referendum.
Which poses the question: in our allegedly representative democracy, who represents the interests of the 52 per cent of voters who backed Leave in June 2016?
This week, MPs returned to discussing the government’s EU Withdrawal Bill. This aims to abolish the European Communities Act of 1972 and the supremacy of European law over UK law (good), while incorporating all existing EU laws on to the British statute book (not-so-good). Attention has focused on a row that gives a false impression of the state of the Brexit debate.
The ruckus was caused by the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Brexit Mutineers’ front page, which pictured 15 Conservative MPs expected to join Labour and vote against their own government over its attempt to include a date for Brexit in the EU Withdrawal Bill.
The paper pointed out that all 15 MPs, including former government ministers, had backed Remain in the referendum, although most represent constituencies that voted Leave. The Telegraph also noted that all of them, except veteran EU-phile Ken Clarke, had voted with the government to trigger Article 50, formally starting the two-year process of withdrawal from the EU. It quoted Bernard Jenkin, a senior pro-Brexit Tory MP, suggesting that, ‘Anyone who voted for Article 50, but then does not wish to fix the date, they are open to the charge that they do not actually want us to leave the European Union’.
Cue expressions of outrage from the named-and-shamed MPs. The loudest, former Tory minister Anna Soubry, accused the Telegraph of ‘blatant bullying’ (she somehow refrained from accusing the paper of sexual harassment). She assured parliament, apparently with a straight face, that ‘None of those people who have been named in this way, and I take it as a badge of honour actually, none of those people want to delay or thwart Brexit, we just want a good Brexit that works for everybody in our country’. Soubry added on Twitter that ‘We want a good Brexit not a hard ideologically driven Brexit #standupfordemocracy’.
Did she mean ‘stand up’ as in comedy? Soubry, like many of the Tory ‘mutineers’, is a Remainer to the roots, who has desperately sought ‘to delay or thwart Brexit’ since she wept over the revolting voters’ verdict in June 2016. She blamed the Leave vote on an anti-immigrant backlash among white working-class voters. Just last month, Soubry declared on the BBC’s Question Time that ‘most people in this country are pretty fed up with hearing about Brexit’. Telegraph journalist Tim Stanley had to remind her that ‘they also voted for it’ – by almost 55 per cent to 45 in Soubry’s Broxtowe constituency. Stand up for democracy, indeed.
If anything, the Telegraph front page probably underestimated the number of Tory ‘mutineers’ prepared to vote with Labour ‘to delay or thwart Brexit’. Soubry herself tweeted that several of her colleagues were annoyed to be left off the list.
But more importantly, the focus on a few outspoken ‘mutineers’ also misses the point. The big problem with the Tories and Brexit is that the supposed captain of the ship, prime minister May, and even more so her first mate/chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, are Remainers, as is the effective deputy prime minister, Damian Green. They are backed by most of the old admirals in the House of Lords. They have taken control of the Brexit process away from Leaver-supporting ministers such as foreign secretary Boris Johnson (a late convert to the cause, anyway), and nominal Brexit secretary David Davis.
May might look like an ardent Brexiteer next to the likes of Soubry. But she does not want the UK to leave the EU, and has been willing to offer important compromises to maintain close relations with her fellow members of the Euro-elite. In her much-hyped Florence speech in September, the prime minister even conceded that European courts would continue to hold sway in Britain during her proposed two-year ‘transition’ period after formal Brexit in March 2019, with the UK potentially being subject to new EU rules. As Labour MP Wes Streeting gleefully pointed out this week, that is also what the supposed Tory ‘rebels’ want: ‘It is government ministers who are unable to say who are the true mutineers.’
On the opposition benches, the Liberal Democrats and Scottish nationalists are of course openly anti-Brexit. The Labour Party remains formally committed to ‘respecting the referendum result’. However, the ‘but…’ added at the end of that begrudging statement is getting bigger all the time.
There were 19 ‘rebel’ Labour MPs who voted against a crucial clause in the EU Withdrawal Bill this week; all the rest abstained, apart from three real rebels who voted for the government’s Brexit bill – Frank Field, Kate Hoey and Graham Stringer. In the Labour Party’s case, that 19 is only the tip of an iceberg of Remainer MPs. It is estimated that more than 90 per cent of Labour MPs backed Remain, while more than 70 per cent of their constituencies voted to leave. And the new wave of Labour supporters is predominantly made up of middle-class, metropolitan Remainers.
That gap between the party and the 52 per cent goes right to the top. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn abandoned his longstanding Bennite opposition to the EU at the one moment it mattered, and backed the establishment’s Remain campaign in the referendum – as did his left-wing supporters in the Momentum lobby. Last month, having initially dodged the question (as did May), Corbyn made clear that he would campaign and vote for Remain again in any second referendum.
Corbyn’s close allies in the parliamentary party are still-firmer Remainers. Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, for instance, despises Brexit almost as much as she fears and loathes the working classes who backed it. Last year she was booed by a Question Time audience for suggesting that Leave voters didn’t know what they were voting for, and had effectively voted for their neighbours to lose their jobs. (We knew perfectly well, said audience members: ‘We voted to leave’ and ‘I voted for Emily Thornberry to lose her job.’) Labour’s shadow Brexit minister, Keir Starmer, is as much a Remainer as any Lib Dem.
And so it goes on. The lack of any firm leadership pushing Brexit in UK politics has encouraged the EU bureaucrats to take a harder line in the sham negotiations, offering nothing and demanding plenty. They do not want to make any deal that would encourage others to take the Brexit path. They want to give Brits a punishment beating for daring to disobey orders.
And these Euro-sharks can smell blood in the water of UK politics, with the obvious lack of conviction behind the formal support for Brexit in an atmosphere of ‘we respect the referendum result, but…’. EU officials are reportedly even looking forward to the collapse of May’s maimed Tory government, which could well further strengthen the Remainers’ restraining hand.
At best, as things stand, any Brexit deal that our politicians back is likely to be a form of Remain-by-another-name. In these circumstances, walking away from the EU talks/blackmail and forging Britain’s own future might seem the increasingly commonsense option if we are to fulfil the referendum demand for greater sovereignty and democracy. Yet in the UK parliament that position is still branded ‘extremism’ by the conformist consensus-mongers.
Anna Soubry said this week that the Telegraph’s attack on the ‘Brexit mutineers’ went ‘to the heart of democracy’. It does, but not in the way that she means. At the heart of any real democracy stands the demos – the people. In our increasingly unrepresentative system of representative democracy, however, the elites have sought further to separate the demos from the other part of the d-word – ‘kratos’, meaning power or control.
The phoney Battle for Brexit in parliament highlights the crisis of democracy. We hear a lot of bleating from anti-Brexit MPs about how the 48 per cent who voted Remain are being ignored. Don’t worry about that – the Remainers are running this show.
The question is, who now represents the 52 per cent of voters who backed Leave? No major UK party can claim to do so, that’s for sure. To make a meaningful Brexit happen in parliament would require a radical realignment of the old party politics, and the break-up of both the Tory and Labour blocs. Don’t hold your breath waiting for our largely spineless leaders to do it.
To win the real Battle for Brexit will require finding new ways to put the demos back at the heart of democracy. To update the slogan of the Leave campaign, we need to ‘take back control’ not just from a committee room of Brussels bureaucrats, but from a Palace of Westminster currently packed with elected and unelected Remainer elitists.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book, Revolting! How the Establishment is Undermining Democracy – and What They’re Afraid of, is published by William Collins. Buy it here.
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