Sunday 13 January 2019 7:54 pm

MPs seeking to relieve the government of its authority are playing a dangerous game

Ahead of tomorrow's vote on Theresa May's proposed withdrawal agreement, it is worth reflecting on the legislative events that have brought us to this point.

554 MPs voted in favour of holding a referendum. It was presented, by the government of the day as well as leading Remain campaigners, as a once-in-a-lifetime event. Campaign material sent to every household in the country declared that “the government will implement your decision.”

On the Remain side, everyone from Sir John Major to the late Paddy Ashdown declared that once a result was in, there was no going back. The result, when it came, delivered a majority of more than a million votes for Leave, and shortly afterwards 448 MPs voted in favour of triggering Article 50, setting in motion a legal timeframe that would culminate in the UK's formal departure from the EU not more than two years later.

In the 2017 general election both Labour and the Tories stood on manifestos that pledged to honour the referendum result.

These are the milestones that mark the road to our current impasse. It is true that political events and partisan divisions have muddied the waters, but at every substantive opportunity the legislature has acknowledged the referendum result and endorsed the legal steps required to implement it.

Until now.

A cross-party group of anti-Brexit MPs is preparing to ambush the government. Their plan involves a fundamental alteration to the British constitution that would enable MPs to seize control of the legislative agenda. According to reports, Downing Street's assessment is that “without control of the order paper, the government has no control over the House of Commons..[and] would lose its ability to govern.” Aided and abetted by the increasingly imperial Speaker John Bercow, MPs would effectively relieve the government of its authority.

Those who still consider Brexit to be a mistake may cheer this act of parliamentary intervention, but it should cause alarm for two reasons.

Firstly, once a constitutional convention is torn up it cannot be easily repaired. Upending parliamentary process in pursuit of an objective today could lead to serious trouble tomorrow – on different issues in a different parliament.

Secondly, the spectacle of anti-Brexit MPs manipulating parliamentary process in a bid to overturn the result of a referendum is not a sight that voters will forget in a hurry.

This course of action risks damaging – at a stroke – both our constitution and public trust in politics.

It amounts to an arrogant and reckless endeavour and the MPs' stated objective, to avoid a no-deal scenario, can be achieved by supporting the PM's deal and turning their energy to the UK's future relationship with the EU.

This would be the responsible, and democratic, thing to do.

 

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