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We can't turn our back on democracy just because an ultra-hard Brexiteer might be entering No 10

May 26, 2019 2:08 PM
By Ed Davey in Liberal Democrat MP for Kingston and Surbiton

Sir Ed Davey MPLet us pass over the irony of Brexiteers claiming their dying wish was to restore sovereignty to the 'mother of parliaments' and then conspiring to muzzle it. Let us instead call such a Brexit putsch for what it would be: an attack on democracy itself.

Brexit has threatened everything from our economy to our sanity: now it is coming for British parliamentary democracy.

Increasingly, the private talk among Brexit ultras is that once Boris Johnson or some even more blood-curdling alternative is installed as leader, the Conservatives will prorogue parliament - that is, prevent MPs from meeting in the Commons - so parliament can't stop Britain crashing out of the EU.

For, as the Institute of Government has recently reminded us, the current default legal position on Britain's future in the European Union is that Britain would leave in October, without a deal.

Let us pass over the irony of Brexiteers claiming their dying wish was to restore sovereignty to the "mother of parliaments" and then conspiring to muzzle it. Let us instead call such a Brexit putsch for what it would be: an attack on democracy itself.

Should that happen, non-parliamentary democracy will mushroom. The one million people who marched so peacefully for a People's Vote will be joined by millions more on the streets to stop an ultra-hard Brexit ruining our country.

And no doubt the supporters of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson will assemble a motley crew of Moggsters, Gammons and Black Shirts.

The peaceful protests we've seen recently calling for action on climate change could soon be a fond and distant memory, replaced by much uglier versions of protest. That's why MPs across the parties must speak out now.

That a prorogation - suspending parliament - is even being whispered about in no-deal Brexit circles is a democratic outrage, but I have had it confirmed to me by a senior Conservative that it is being seriously considered.

As a Liberal Democrat, I naturally support a vote on any deal to be given to the 47 million-strong British electorate, and not just to the 124,000 Conservative Party members. For the Conservatives not to even trust MPs with a vote would be extraordinary, even by today's sinking standards. The Conservative Party has already foisted its own nasty divisions on our country: if the Brexit ultras try to bypass parliament, they must be stopped in parliament.

But Brexiteers' desperate talk of prorogation does reveal their weaknesses: logic and reason. It reflects how little confidence Brexiteers have left in their tarnished case.

They are starting to realise what is, for them, an uncomfortable truth: that for all their obsession with leaders and leadership, a Churchill or a Cicero could not persuade parliament of the wisdom of no deal.

They have booted out yet another Conservative prime minister over Europe but even prime minister Rees-Mogg or (please don't laugh) Steve Baker would otherwise still have to persuade parliament to carry out their no-deal agenda. And then later, of course, having to crawl back to negotiate with the EU when they learn belatedly that leaving on "WTO terms" basically means being clobbered with massive tariffs by the EU and everyone else.

Now it is just possible that Boris Johnson privately recognises the Brexit fallacy and is even preparing to pull a colossal, screeching U-turn if and when he blusters into No 10. It sometimes takes an ultra in office to make the fanatics face reality. After all, it is hard to discern what he fully believes in - apart from himself.

However, the fear is the Tory party leadership will be a beauty parade in Brexit extremism. Instead of a thoughtful debate on the issues that really matter to people - our NHS, our schools, climate change, poverty - Conservative members, led by the ERGers, will be focused on tying the hands of Britain's next prime minister to the mast of a no-deal Brexit.

Until now, the fear of no deal has been suppressed by the strong evidence that a significant majority of MPs would vote against it, and that Theresa May had ultimately listened to the warnings from the Treasury, police and security services and from business, and would herself not countenance a no deal.

Her departure changes that calculation. And MPs must wake up and act. We need cross-party motions and debates to show that parliament remains against no deal.

But above all, we need a new law preventing no deal without a parliamentary vote. Ideally, this would change Britain's default position to a revocation of Article 50, should any cliff edge be reached - but others may have different legislative ideas to prevent a national catastrophe.

And we may well need Theresa May, in the time she has left, to save her reputation. She could facilitate the legislation to let MPs lockout no deal, before Boris or one of his ilk seize the crown.

For my part, if they lock me out of parliament, I will take to the streets - and I'm confident I will be joined by millions in peaceful protest. We must resist this attack on our democracy.

Ed Davey is the Liberal Democrat MP for Kingston and Surbiton