By definition, you cannot be elected as a Member of Parliament without receiving more votes from your constituents than any other candidate. Also, in practice, apart from the rare single-issue candidate, you cannot get elected without being the candidate of a recognised political party. Otherwise, you lack the benefit of name recognition, have to formulate your own political programme, suffer from lack of volunteers to campaign for you etc.
Nevertheless, our long Parliamentary history makes some things crystal clear:
- An MP has no obligation to follow the voting instructions of his or her party. The Party may expel them, may deselect them as a candidate in the next general election, and generally pour opprobrium upon them. However, no party leader has the power to compel any MP how to vote. Indeed, an MP is free to change his or her political party every day of the week, as long as they can find other political parties that will accept them as incomers!
- An MP has no obligation to vote in accordance with the wishes of his or her electors. Even if 100 per cent of his or her electorate write to the MP demanding that he or she votes in a particular manner, the MP is free to disregard them. The electorate may of course choose to vote against the MP in the next general election, but that is the constituents’ only remedy.
- An MP is free to vote as he or she wishes, regardless of any promises or commitments they may have made to their political parties, or indeed to their voters during the election campaign. Doing a volte face on an election promise will indeed attract severe criticism, but the MP is free to break as many election promises as he or she wishes.
The only obligation of an MP is to exercise their best judgement, to vote in the best interests of the nation, and not to vote out of self-interest, for example for personal pecuniary benefit.
The above truths are often forgotten, or attacked in this populist age, but they remain true nevertheless. We are governed by a representative democracy, not by opinion poll, not by the tabloid press, and not by plebiscites.
Obviously, on a day-to-day basis, MPs follow the voting instructions of their parties because otherwise organised government would risk becoming impossible. However, issues such as war and peace, fundamental moral issues, and major national issues such as Brexit are a sharp reminder of what the duty of MPs is.
Where Britain is today
I think it is fair to say that the our country’s Brexit negotiating position is in some disarray.
Blame rests with the Prime Minister who rushed to serve an Article 50 notice ignoring my advice in “The Government must go to the ECJ to establish whether Article 50 notice is revokable” and then after losing her Parliamentary majority failed to seek cross-party consensus on negotiating strategy as I recommended in “The Government should now agree a Brexit position with other parties and the devolved administrations.”
Instead overwhelming priority has been given to internal negotiations within the Conservative Party, while the other political parties have been ignored. Negotiations with the EU-27 have repeatedly taken a back-seat to internal Conservative Party machinations.
Meanwhile, the 24-month Article 50 clock ticks away remorselessly, as in a game of chess. The equivalent of losing on time when your chess clock’s flag falls is leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 without any kind of deal. While this would not be quite as bad as the hypothetical ultra-hard Brexit of my article “Ultra-hard Brexit – a mathematical perspective,” few people apart from some Brexit fantasists would consider leaving the EU with no exit deal to be in the national interest.
What happens next
Sometime this year, assuming the Government does not completely abandon negotiating with the EU-27, the government will put a Brexit departure agreement before Parliament. In the normal way of governments, it will attempt to bully Parliamentarians by telling them that this is the only deal available, and that if they do not vote for it the world will end.
That will be the moment for every MP to look in the mirror and remind themselves what it means to be an MP. Accordingly, it is quite clear what their duty is. That is to ask the question: “Is this deal better than any of the alternatives below?”
The alternatives are:
- Leave the EU with no deal.
- Try to negotiate a fresh deal within the limited time available.
- Remain within the EU by the UK unilaterally withdrawing its Article 50 notice. (My article “The Government must go to the ECJ to establish whether Article 50 notice is revokable” briefly discusses the withdrawability legal question, but in any event I expect that in practice the EU-27 would have no objection to the notice being withdrawn.)
If any of the alternatives look preferable to the deal, then Parliament should instruct the government to follow the alternative that Parliament prefers.
Indeed, even before the deal gets to Parliament, the Prime Minister should ask herself the same question. If she concludes that remaining within the EU is in the national interest, she should exercise the Royal Prerogative to withdraw the Article 50 notice, and then tell her Cabinet and her Party what she has done and why. That is called leadership.
Regardless of what is said by Conservative Brexiteers now, I do not believe that in a fit of pique they would emulate Samson by forcing a General Election which in those circumstances might be won by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.