Ken Clarke made a case yesterday in the Commons that Nicky Morgan put on ConservativeHome this Monday – that MPs are representatives, not delegates; that it follows that they should not regard the EU referendum result as an instruction and that (in Clarke’s case), he will vote against the Article 50 Bill since his judgement is that Britain should remain a member,
The former Chancellor was absolutely right. This site has argued the Burkean case many times, and won’t change its mind just because it is pro-Brexit. Furthermore, the argument that the people have given Parliamentarians a mandate and that they must therefore execute it is less straightforward than it looks. What should a pro-Leave MP do if his constituents voted Remain? (Or vice-versa, for that matter.)
Such calculations are a reminder that the Burkean ideal doesn’t operate in an abstract. It must be applied in the real electoral world. Burke himself lost his seat in Bristol because his constituents disagreed with his view on free trade with Ireland. It follows that constituents who don’t like how their MP votes on the Article 50 Bill can in turn vote him out when the time comes. This is the fate that overtook Zac Goldsmith in Richmond Park.
This debate is complicated by the way in which MPs are picked as candidates. Most of them are party animals, and it’s the party that selects. ConservativeHome’s surveys during the referendum, and polling elsewhere, suggested that about three in five Party members were for Brexit. If they feel that their MP is mistaken in opposing it, they can always refuse to reselect him.
This consideration seems a bit academic: Clarke himself is standing down, and some of the most dedicated campaigners for Remain are voting for Article 50. But the point is none the less worth making. I myself would not automatically vote in a reselection to spurn a pro-Remain MP who had opposed Brexit in the lobbies (because I might well think his local record, say, more important when push comes to shove).
None the less, my presumption in these circumstances would be not to re-adopt – because the Party has a very clear position on Brexit, and Tory MPs should “get with the programme” post-referendum. The choice is not so clear for Labour. Their party policy pulls one way; the referendum’s verdict the other. Which is why Keith Starmer’s speech yesterday seeking to reconcile the two was tortuous – but also made a sad sort of sense.