The now-former Justice Minister has long been unhappy about Brexit, tweeting in January that it should be guided by “evidence, not dogma” – and being hauled in for an “interview without coffee by the Chief Whip in consequence. “There would be a serious question over whether a government could legitimately lead a country along a path that the evidence and rational consideration indicate would be damaging,” he had also tweeted. He had poked a toe over the line of collective responsibility.
That he has leaped over it altogether will do nothing to calm Number Ten’s nerves about this afternoon’s vote, given the timing. Is he acting alone? Will more resignations follow?
We wonder. Lee is an energetic, driven figure who tends not to beat about the bush. Read his defence of hospital closures on this site from 2014, and you will see that he likes to speak his mind. That ease with being a minority is consistent with him having acted alone, but we will see. At one point during the later Cameron years he was touted as a future leader, making it briefly into our monthly survey before one of its periodic culls.
His argument in a nutshell seems to be that he backed Remain, still thinks Brexit is wrong, none the less believes it should happen – but that “the outcome that is emerging will be neither fully to leave the EU, nor fully to stay”.
So the Government now needs “a confirmatory mandate”. In other words, a second referendum. He says that he will support a “meaningful vote” this afternoon. That may encourage others to do so too. We find his line of argument a bit convoluted, but here’s the key section from his statement, available in full on his website, which will help you to make up your own mind.
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“If, in the future, I am to look my children in the eye and honestly say that I did my best for them I cannot, in all good conscience, support how our country’s exit from the EU looks set to be delivered.
As a Member of Parliament, I also have a major responsibility to my constituency of Bracknell. In extensive consultations with local employers, both large and small, I have been warned that they expect Brexit as it is currently being pursued, whatever the negotiated settlement, will damage their business. I have spoken to people, many of whom have lived, worked and raised their family here, whose fears for their futures I am not always able to allay. Regrettably, it seems inevitable that the people, economy and culture of my constituency will be affected negatively, and I cannot ignore that it is to them that I owe my first responsibility.
Sadly, from within government I have found it virtually impossible to help bring sufficient change to the course on which we are bound.
I voted to remain in the European Union and have not changed my view that continued membership would have been the better strategic course. Even so, I believe that it would be impossible and wrong to seek to go back to how things were before the referendum. We cannot and should not turn back the clock.
However, as the negotiations are unfolding, two things are becoming clear.
• The practicalities, logistics and implications of leaving the EU are far more complex than was ever envisaged and certainly more complex than the people were told in 2016. The UK is not going to be ready in time, neither is the EU, and both would suffer from a rushed or fudged agreement.
• The outcome that is emerging will be neither fully to leave the EU, nor fully to stay. This is not an outcome for which anyone knowingly voted. In my view, this raises the important principle of legitimacy: I do not believe it would be right for the Government to pursue such a course without a plan to seek a confirmatory mandate for the outcome. And I believe that Parliament should have the power to ask the Government to adjust its course in the best interests of the people whom its Members represent.
In my medical experience, if a course of treatment is not working, then I review it. I also have a duty to get my patient’s informed consent for that action.
If Brexit is worth doing, then it is certainly worth doing well; regardless of how long that takes. It is, however, irresponsible to proceed as we are, so we should:
• recognise that the UK and EU are not ready for Brexit and pause, extend or revoke Article 50 so that we do not leave before we are ready.
• re-engage with our European and international friends to talk about how to achieve the aims that we share for the future in ways that respect individual countries’ interests and sovereignty. Since 2016, electorates in many countries across Europe have expressed similar concerns to those that we expressed in the referendum and so much is changing, and will continue to change, across the whole of our continent.
• empower our Parliament so that its role is not limited to making fake choices – such as between a ‘bad deal’ and a cliff-edge ‘no deal’. Our Parliament should be able to direct our Government to change course in our interests. In all conscience, I cannot support the Government’s decision to oppose this amendment because doing so breaches such fundamental principles of human rights and Parliamentary sovereignty. A vote between bad and worse is not a meaningful vote. And I cannot bring myself to vote for it in the bastion of liberty, freedom and human rights that is our Parliament.
When the Government is able to set out an achievable, clearly defined path – one that has been properly considered, whose implications have been foreseen, and that is rooted in reality and evidence, not dreams and dogma – it should go to the people, once again, to seek their confirmation.”