A parliament session in progress.
Can someone please explain to me why a general election would solve anything at all about Brexit? Apparently it is being “talked up” by cabinet sources. They’ve been “war gaming” it. It has been suggested by Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, as the only constitutional way out of the morass, because the executive – that is, cabinet ministers – won’t do what the House of Commons instructs them to do. That, by the way, is constitutional nonsense in the British system – in our system, as opposed to say the United States or France, we do not elect an executive separate to, and sometimes opposed by, the legislature. Here, ministers are of the Commons and, in normal circumstances, are responsive to the wishes of the Commons, which they themselves are members of.
The first thing to do would be for the government to hold a vote of no confidence in itself, which it would seek to lose (another procedural oddity) or encourage Jeremy Corbyn to table one. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 we would then have a short interval in which Mr Corbyn could attempt to claim that he could secure a majority in the Commons and form a government, caretaker or otherwise, to carry on with a new deal for Brexit. That seems a futile distraction.
Then we would have a campaign in which the public and media would discuss what they wanted to – and not just Europe. As Ms May found in 2017, and others before her, the electorate tends to go where it pleases in terms of issues. A general election might be called because of Europe, and the EU might be an issue in the campaign, but very many other issues – the NHS, housing, Corbyn, nationalisation, taxes, the railways – will intervene.
There is also the small matter of who would be leading the Tories in the campaign. If Ms May honours her commitment not to lead them into another general election, it will need to be a new leader. But they can’t elect one because it would take too much time. So they would have to anoint someone as a stand-in. But they’re asking us to elect a prime minister, and we cannot know who will replace the caretaker. Imagine the Tory MPs trying to agree on someone. They’d need a lot of “indicative votes”. They might still end up with Boris.
Then we might wonder what the Labour Party and the Conservatives would put in their manifesto. Are they pro- or anti-Brexit? On what terms? On terms acceptable to the EU? On “unicorn” fantasy terms? For or against a final say referendum? I’m guessing their pledges would be quite woolly.
There is also a high chance that the House of Commons that returns after a four-week campaign will look very much like the House of Commons that departed when the Queen, perhaps reluctantly, agrees to dissolve parliament. The Independent Group of MPs might be all but wiped out, but I doubt Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party will succeed even in getting him elected, even if they dent some Tory and Labour majorities. They’d probably just poach and split the existing Ukip vote.
That is to say that the British general election of 2019 will result in a hung parliament in which no-one can claim a mandate for anything. Even a tiny Tory majority wouldn’t resolve anything if the new boys and girls are mavericks. It would have been a huge waste of time and money, and, worse, fail to solve the EU issue.
The 2016 referendum mandate is not relevant for where we are now – this is not “the Brexit we voted for”. We are three days away from crashing out and parliament is still voting on what kind of Brexit it fancies. No one told us about stockpiling body bags and medicines, or having our passports stamped on a weekend break to Paris.
“Final say”, “people’s vote”, “put it to the people”, “second referendum”... you can call it what you like, but everyone – Leavers, Remainers, the don’t cares – we should all have a right to approve of what is about to happen. More than that, it really is the only practical way out. Ms May should take her deal to the country. She might even win.
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