Brexit: the choice facing the Labour MPs who hold the balance of power

Britain’s future relationship with the European Union lies in the hands of 25 men and women who were elected as Labour MPs two years ago. Nineteen of them recently wrote to Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk saying that the 2016 referendum result should be “honoured without delay”. A further six are no longer Labour MPs, but supported Boris Johnson in last Saturday’s vote in the House of Commons. In the days ahead, the way they vote will decide whether and when – and if so, in what form – Brexit will go ahead.

Last Saturday’s vote, in which MPs voted 322-306 to withhold support for Boris Johnson’ deal with the EU until and unless Parliament approves the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, demonstrates the point. Of the 25 MPs, 11 voted with the Government and 10 against it. Four abstained. Had they all voted for Sir Oliver Letwin’s amendment, his majority would have more than doubled, from 16 to 42. Had they all voted against the amendment, the Government would have won by eight.

Let us, however briefly, set aside the passions on both sides of the Brexit debate; instead, let us explore the arguments of principle that weigh on these 25 MPs. They fall into three groups.

The first is their mandate. They represent Leave-voting constituencies. Their most common argument is that they are honour-bound to respect the result of the referendum and the wishes of their voters. They are unmoved by the riposte that in virtually all – perhaps all – of their 25 constituencies, most LABOUR voters want the UK to remain in the EU. They say that their duty is to represent all their constituents, not just Labour voters.

A trickier issue is the nature of their mandate from the 2017 general election. True, Labour promised to “respect” the referendum result; but it imposed some clear conditions. It wanted a form of Brexit that would “protect workers’ rights and environmental standards”. It demanded “a strong emphasis on maintaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union”. It also wanted the UK to remain members of such EU agencies as Euratom, Erasmus, Horizon 2020 and the European Medicines Agency,

Johnson’s deal rejects all these demands. The 25 MPs must now decide whether their mandate allows them to vote for the specific form of Brexit they are being offered. At the very least, they would seem to be bound by their electoral mandate to vote for an amendment to the Withdrawal Bill, to insist on the UK remaining in the Customs Union.

The second issue flows from the first. We can argue whether Labour’s manifesto offered a realistic notion of the kind of Brexit that could be achieved; but it clearly sought to protect Britain’s economy and living standards. A mountain of evidence shows that Leave voters in Labour areas were influenced by a belief that Brexit would mean more, and better-paid, jobs, as well as the fabled £350 million a week” extra for the NHS.

So, the second question that the 25 MPs must ask themselves is: Will the Brexit now on offer protect or threaten their constituents’ living standards? Independent analyses indicate a significant, cumulative hit to economic growth and public finances.  Do the 25 MPs accept this broad analysis? (There will always be room to disagree over precise numbers.) If so, if they vote for Johnson’s version of Brexit, in what way do they feel they are serving their constituents’ wishes?

The third issue is, perhaps, the most fundamental. Are MPs ultimately delegates who should do as their constituents ask, regardless of any change of circumstances, or should they apply their own judgement? The classic, much-quoted, text is Edmund Burke’s speech in 1774 to the electors of Bristol: “Your representative owes you his judgement; and he betrays you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” That point has lost none of its power; but it must be said theta he lived at a time when very few people had the vote. In no way could Britain be described as a democracy.

A less well-known speech from the modern era is more relevant. On November 21, 1974, a series of IRA pub bombings killed 21 people in Birmingham. Three weeks later, MPs debated the return of the death penalty for terrorist murders. In the wake of the pub bombings, this was a popular cause, not least in Birmingham itself. One of the city’s MPs, Brian Walden, spoke out against the view that, he conceded, was held by most of his constituents:

“Any expression of public opinion must be a matter of grave concern to this House. It must form part of our judgement – part of our judgement, not the whole. Are we a House of delegates?… No man should surrender what he owes most to his constituents, his judgement, simply because he fears that the expression of his constituents might prove unpopular outside this House. Our duty is to use reason, and to use it well.”

Walden warned that, were that principle to die, “parliamentary democracy will die with it and one may make one’s peace with plebiscitary democracy, that friend of tyrants and demagogues”.

MPs voted with Walden to reject the death penalty. How will they vote in the coming days, when the character of Britain’s democracy, as well as its relationship with the rest of Europe, is once again  at stake?