Democracy is on the line

We cannot count on MPs to save it.

Tom Slater
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Topics Brexit Politics UK

Strange as it is to say this, last night should have been – and in any other era it would have been – a good night for British democracy. A government’s central policy, fiercely opposed by the country, by both sides of a polarised electorate, which a deeply unpopular prime minister was trying to force through, was roundly defeated.

In normal times, the PM would have been forced to resign. We would likely be headed for a General Election. We would have a chance to punish a government that had failed to govern competently, with conviction and, most importantly, in line with the promises it had made to the public. The democratic checks would be kicking in; the system would be working.

But that’s not what happened, of course. Instead, the second defeat of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, this incredible failure of statecraft, democratic representation and basic competence, has only reminded us of how profoundly dysfunctional our political system has become.

May’s EU Withdrawal Agreement was beaten all right – this time by a whopping 149 votes, as opposed to the record-beating 230 chalked up against it in January. Her ‘legally binding’ assurances from the EU that the so-called backstop would not trap us in a customs union indefinitely were deemed insufficient by her own attorney general, and she failed to win over enough MPs for even a semi-respectable defeat.

But while the rejection of May’s deal should be a positive – in response to the British people’s demand for more democracy and sovereignty, the deal would have, perversely, turned Britain into a colony of Brussels – yesterday’s vote has left voters just as disempowered, just as cut out of the process, as they were before it.

Much of the focus in recent days has been on the hardcore Tory Eurosceptics who voted down May’s deal for a second time last night. But the fact remains that just as many if not more MPs rejected May’s deal because they don’t want Brexit to happen at all. And the wind is currently in their sails.

Today the Commons will likely vote to reject Britain leaving on 29 March without a withdrawal agreement, on World Trade Organisation terms – that is, to reject our last viable path to a meaningful Brexit. May will vote to reject No Deal herself, mere months after saying No Deal was better than a bad deal.

Then, on Thursday, it is expected that MPs will vote to request an extension to the Article 50 process, delaying Brexit Day.

Voting for an extension would not stop No Deal on its own. A request for an extension is just that – a request. It would be for the EU to accept it and to set its duration. And as The Times’s Bruno Waterfield points out, the EU is pushing the argument that the best way to avoid No Deal is to revoke Article 50 entirely.

But if an extension is granted, it will be because Brussels spies a softer Brexit, or perhaps even no Brexit at all. Martin Selmayr, the power behind Jean-Claude Juncker’s throne, has suggested a year-long extension, at least, to allow for a General Election or a second referendum.

If that were to happen, Britain would be forced to take part in the European Parliament elections in May, almost three years after we voted to leave the EU.

That the EU and its Westminster cheerleaders have emerged from this period on top was not inevitable. The government has been remarkably unwilling to exploit emerging contradictions in the positions of Brussels and Rearguard Remainers in recent weeks.

The Irish border issue has continued to dominate, and yet the EU’s argument for the backstop has begun to unravel. EU negotiator Michel Barnier was not only forced to admit in January that there would be no hard border under any circumstances, he also flirted with proposed solutions his team had previously labelled ‘unicorns’.

Similarly, May’s u-turn on No Deal, throwing away her last bit of leverage, has come despite a series of deals and contingency plans being unveiled to minimise disruption in various areas. Arch-Remainers have continued to insist a ‘managed No Deal’ is a myth, even as both sides set out plans to manage No Deal.

Brexiteers were right to reject May’s Withdrawal Agreement. The idea that it is better to vote for a Brexit in Name Only than risk no Brexit at all is ridiculous. But the fact remains that British democracy is now so thoroughly broken that there is little those few principled MPs can do to stave off the coming betrayal.

While the majority of the public backed Brexit, the vast majority of MPs, and the great heft of the two main party establishments, backed Remain. Even if May was to resign or be brought down tomorrow, we would be left with the same aloof, anti-democratic political class. Nothing would have changed.

Which is why we Leavers – we democrats – need to band together, to organise. We need to thrash out strategies for the battles to come – whether they come in the form of the European elections, a second referendum or, brace yourself, another General Election.

We cannot continue to be spectators in this process. We cannot just commiserate with one another from the sidelines. We need to start working out how to defend Brexit, to defend our vote, ourselves – because the past 24 hours have made it all the more clear that no one in Westminster can do it for us.

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

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