The brilliant Jonathan Clark has argued on this site that the aftermath of the EU referendum pitched direct democracy against representative democracy. The people voted to leave. Parliament yearns to remain. We have all learned the hard way over the past three years that this conflict between the two leads to a festering stalemate. It has put our unwritten constitution to the test in radically new and potentially momentous ways.
These have become familiar. ConservativeHome has always believed that the referendum mandate was clear enough, and that the UK should leave the EU without a deal, if no good deal option is available.
But we cannot prove our point as though it were a mathematical theorem. Some agree with us that the referendum verdict is binding; others disagreem and assert that it was advisory. No structure or system was created to decide one way or the other – a consequence of the unique cirumstances of the referendum. It was the first in Britain’s history in which the Government actually wanted a No vote, and so David Cameron deliberately didn’t prepare for a resolution.
Hence so many of the trials and tribulations of the last three years. A Commons that effectively made extension-obsessed Oliver Letwin a Prime Minister in all but name – and he’s at it again tomorrow – without him being accountable for his plans at the despatch box. A biased Speaker who is a player, not an umpire, thus trashing his office and making a mockery of Erskine May. The Benn Act – driven through Parliament in less than a week, thus flicking a V-sign at our constitutional norms. A Supreme Court that has junked law for politics. An Opposition that claims to want an election, but has twice voted against one. An fractious Conservative Party.
We don’t know as we write what exactly MPs will vote on today. (Though we do know that this decision will be largely in the hands of the Speaker, which is bad news for Boris Johson and the referendum verdict.) We also know that two loose interests among Tory MPs could make life difficult for the Government.
These are, first, not so much the European Research Group or the Spartans as a handful of Tory MPs who especially prize “our precious Union” – rightly so. And, second, another band, some of whom have been deprived of the whip, and who are hostile to the Prime Minister at best, and to the referendum result at worst.
We believe that both shoud give Johnson the benefit of the doubt tomorrow, however the votes are constituted. There are three main reasons why.
First, neither group has to make a final decision about the deal on the day. Like most of the rest of us, they haven’t seen a legal text.
So to our felllow Unionists, we say: wait and see what the legal text actually says about Northern Ireland, and keep talking and listening to the DUP, with whose agonies their confidence and supply partners should identity.
And to the 21 and their allies, we say: most of you have argued all along that your intention is not to block Brexit, but a No Deal Brexit. Now that the Prime Minister has a deal, you’ve no excuse for not practising what you preach.
And by tthe way, today’s contretemps over whether No Deal could happen at the end of transition is the reddest of red herrings. Yes, of course No Deal will be “on the table”. But, no, Boris Johnson has proved beyond any doubt this week that he wants a deal. So it’s fruitless to quarrel about whether or not he will get a future trade deal agreed on time when MPs have a new Withdrawal Agreement before them today. One thing at a time.
Which takes us to our second reason.
Neither of these interest groups trusts Boris Johnson. To which we reply: you don’t have to, at least not tomorrow. All you need to do is give him the benefit of the doubt for a day. Which he has every right to ask for. Consider the record. He was told that if he committed to No Deal if necessary, the EU wouldn’t budge. That it would never, ever approve changes to the Withdrawal Agreemen. That he was actually commited to No Deal. That everything he does in the Commons and the courts turns to dust.
All this was the consenus of the punditocracy. Bits of it were shared even by this site. And the Prime Minister is proving the whole lot of us wrong. The EU has re-opened the Withdrawal Agreement. It has retreated on trying to keep the whole UK in the Customs Union. Above all, Johnson has shown that he really does want a deal – and so it is that the 21 resigned for nothing. As for everything he does withering to ashes, consider the polls. Theresa May shipwrecked the Party’s ratings. Johnson has rescued them.
Where she was a cowed, wretched communicator,, Johnson is “the greatest showman”. Nobody does it better. Tory MPs winkled her out and helped put him in precisely because they want charisma, derring-do, resourcefulness – and a leader whose presence resonates on the doorsteps. This site backed him very early on “a wing and prayer”, and our supplication is being answered. He is delivering for Tory MPs in spades. The least they cancan do is deliver for him tomorrow.
This points to our third, last reason.
Maybe those MPs believe that the best course is to reject this new deal out of hand, and variously take a punt on a general election or even a second referendum, according to taste – in the wake of rebuffing their leader. Are they really sure that this is what voters want? Might either not pave the way for a resurgent Nigel Farage, a Labour Government propped up by the SNP, and a second referendum on Scottish independence? Do eirher group really want to take the chance that it wouldn’t?
Lord Ashcroft’s recent polling suggests that voters agree with Johnson’s instinct, and the slogan that sums it up: “let’s get Brexit done”. If Conservative MPs don’t want to give him the benefit of the doubt, very many ordinary punters do. Public and party opinion is passing on. Our survey today shows that almost nine in ten Party menbers back Johnson’s deal. That’s as thumping a verdict as they have ever delivered on anything.
And so it is that we ask fellow Unionists and rhe 21 alike to recognise this change in the weather, give the Prime Minister that benefit of the doubt today, prepare their questions about his deal for when the Bill which sets it out appears, and recognise that the time has come to move on.
Were this not a great country with a brilliant future, Angela Merkel would not be worrying that Britain, if it takes a new road to national independence, will out-compete the EU it is leaving. As she put it this week, “in addition to China and the US, there will be Britain as well.” Let our own Prime Minister have the last word on that thought, from the very day he took office: “the people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts”.
Those words should make every Tory worth the name want to stand on a chair and cheer. Fellow Unionists, the 21, troubled Spartans, sullen Remainers: suck this deal and see, wait and watch for the Bill – and vote with your Prime Minister today. Pack all your troubles in your old kit bag, and smile, smile, smile.