The British people voted to leave the EU by 52 per cent to 48 per cent. Roughly three quarters of MPs backed the campaign to Remain.
These are two of the core facts on which the future of Brexit now depends. David Cameron, whose performance in the Commons this afternoon was as assured as Jeremy Corbyn’s was lamentable, sought to resolve the tensions between them. The decision to quit must be respected, he said, but it’s for the Commons to decide the details.
So it is now for MPs to mull whether they want to try the Norway option, the Swiss option, the WTO option, a bespoke option, or some other option (please add your choice below) – and then see what the EU institutions and member states have to say. Near the centre of the decisions to be made could be a trade-off between single market access and lower migration levels.
But it may be that the Commons finds ways of holding out against all of them, and that Ken Clarke’s remarks today pointed to gridlock ahead. We should be grateful to him for saying publicly this afternoon what some pro-Remain MPs say privately: the former Chancellor argued in effect that the referendum result be ignored altogether. Watch for the Liberal Democrats, part of Labour and a group of other Euro-enthusiast Conservatives – 15? 30? 50? – to seek to frustrate last week’s verdict. The logic of the Commons arithmetic points to an early election if there is an impasse.
The silence in which Gisela Stuart and other Leave MPs was received was a striking contrast to the cheers that greeted some of their pro-Remain colleages. (Where was Boris Johnson, by the way?) These sounded loudest when Labour MPs, in particular, were condemning horrible recent attacks on Poles and other migrants. But there is a danger here for MPs, and for the Opposition in particular – namely, that they somehow end up suggesting that all Leave supporters are racists. It was this reflex that helped to lose Remain the referendum last week.
If Labour sticks to the same line and seeks to frustrate the referendum result, it risks improving UKIP’s chances in its northern and midlands electoral heartlands. In one sense, a vote to leave the EU should kill UKIP, since it removes the essence of its case for existing. In another, it probably won’t do so. UKIP is now a fully-fledged populist party, well-placed, if it can grow the capability, of taking a lot of seats off Labour.
This post-referendum, pro-Brexit Conservative Party might just be able to do the same – though it will simultaneously need to hold on to the middle ground, One Nation ground on which Cameron pitched his electoral tent. (With some success, it should be added: look back at the way many former Liberal Democrats voters went Tory in May last year.)
Yes, the Commons this afternoon suggested that there may well be a clash between what the referendum decided and what MPs now do.