Wednesday 4 September 2019 4:30 am

MPs have only themselves to blame for the Brexit mess we’re in

On 23 June 2016, the British people voted narrowly, but with a clear margin nonetheless, to leave the European Union. 

The precise form that this leaving would take – with a deal, and if so what type, or without – was not clarified at the time, but the intention was firmly stated and unequivocal. 

This verdict was sufficiently obvious for David Cameron to resign as Prime Minister on the grounds that he felt unable to see this new mandate through, and for his successor Theresa May to declare for the first of many times that “Brexit means Brexit”. 

It was also patently self-evident to the vast majority of MPs, who in early 2017 granted the government the power to invoke Article 50, and thereby begin the EU withdrawal process, with a vote of 498 to 114. Article 50 was accordingly triggered on 29 March 2017, and the rest was supposed to be history. 


Except, of course, it isn’t. Three years on from the original decision to leave, the UK remains mired in the Brexit process, uncertain of what the outcome will be – or even whether there will be an outcome. 

It is difficult to conceive of a more dispiriting set of events in recent British political history. There are certainly not any which have lasted for such a lengthy period with no respite, crowding out many of the important other policy decisions that this nation needs to take because of Brexit’s vice-like grip on the political class. 

For this parlous state of affairs, there are ultimately two culprits. 

Much of the blame has rightly been heaped on May’s premiership. May wasted much of the period in question on the wild goose chase of a deal that was never going to pass muster given the strictures of the Irish backstop, and did so in a myopic fashion that destroyed opportunities for more creative thinking. 

But she has departed the scene of the crime, leaving her co-conspirator now in sole possession.

Enter, stage right, the House of Commons elected in 2017 in May’s grand folly of an election. 

Given that the last positive vote by the House in trying to resolve our Brexit odyssey – the aforementioned Article 50 endorsement – occurred before the life of this current parliament, a more do-nothing and hand-wringing collective would be hard to find, notwithstanding the presence of any number of gifted and talented individuals within its ranks.


Time and time again, when presented with options for how to proceed with a Brexit mandated by the people, this House of Commons has voted them down. 

Whether it was May’s deal or indicative votes for every Brexit option under the sun, the only thing this House of Commons has been able to agree upon is how to disagree.

Even the House’s prior abjuration of a no-deal Brexit indicates the core issue with our current cast of parliamentary characters. MPs may have declared in the past what they do not want, but they have no idea what they do want. 

Until this basic problem is overcome, we face the prospect of being stuck in Brexit limbo in perpetuity. 

This is no way for a country to be governed. MPs may be representatives in the Burkean sense rather than delegates, but we should not be blind to the idea that if our representatives fail to deliver on the will of the people – however vaguely expressed – then the fault is theirs. 

Boris Johnson may have been guilty of many things during his political career, but when the chips are down, as they very much are now, there are few others that you would want to join you in a fight given the leadership qualities he has shown. 

The Prime Minister has bravely set a course for the nation – Brexit by all and any means necessary, preferably with a deal but if necessary then without – in a bid to deliver the long-awaited mandate of 2016. 

He has done so understanding that it is only if all options are left on the table that the EU side of the negotiation may yet blink, and provide the breakthrough required for a deal with honour for all sides. And he has accepted this challenge in the full knowledge that it may yet curtail his own political career. 

A politician capable of offering self-sacrifice for the pursuit of an ideal is a rare breed in today’s world. Some of Johnson’s opponents purport to uphold similar values, but there is one glaring difference. They seek to frustrate the will of the people, not fulfil it.

Members of this current House of Commons should consider this as they weigh up their options in the Brexit finale to come, lest the words of Oliver Cromwell, as he dissolved the Rump Parliament in 1653, come back to haunt them when the people get their next chance to cast their verdict: 

“You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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