Eurosceptic MPs should hold their nerve as anti-Brexit colleagues dig their own electoral graves

Eurosceptic MPs should hold their nerve as anti-Brexit colleagues dig their own electoral graves

The appeal of Theresa May’s deal has pushed more threateningly every day as the former Brexit deadline draws near. Narrow vote after narrow vote has meant the prospect of Parliament seizing control of the Brexit process and an extended extension period have nearly come to pass.

Hilary Benn’s amendment on Thursday would have allowed as few as 25 MPs to subvert the will of the British people as long as they came from five parties. There are countless reasons why this is an incendiary and technocratic concept and that the United Kingdom really dodged a bullet when it was rejected by a disturbingly slim majority of two votes. The first reason, and the one that displays the political reality of the House most simply, is that Members of Parliament from only three parties display open and vocal support for the idea of the UK leaving the European Union; yet members from seven parties are routinely against.

At the time of writing, Parliament has voted to extend Article 50 (although in order for this to actually happen there must be unanimity from the EU27 leaders). The Prime Minister, in allowing this, has contradicted herself; and the Conservative Party has gone against its own manifesto.

Public polling released on the day of the vote showed a clear majority of the British public did not endorse an extension and the prospect of a no-deal Brexit has been becoming more popular.

The 415 MPs who backed the extension are in a very bad place – and to the Brexit-supporting electorate they have gone against their own words and will have demonstrated that their own intentions are contrary to the democratic mandate handed to them on 23rd June 2016.

In all of this, the only group that has remained relatively firm and consistent is the European Research Group. Their refusal to support the Withdrawal Agreement has meant that it has now been substantially defeated twice in the House of Commons. They oppose it because, despite securing minor freedoms from the European Union such as on immigration, the deal has been deemed insufficient in establishing sovereignty for the UK and could see us tied to EU rules indefinitely. The ERG requested legally-binding assurances that this would not happen – requests that were failed to be met by Number 10.

Despite a small number that came to the decision to back the Withdrawal Agreement and the Government primarily for political reasons, the ERG has been the only consistent group in the House of Commons, despite unhelpful smears such as being branded ‘extremists’ by ministers such as Chancellor Philip Hammond. This is evident in Labour’s abstention from the vote on a second referendum on Thursday, despite Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn previously declaring for one.

After the week’s events showed there was no majority in the Commons for a no-deal Brexit, the threat facing the ERG and eurosceptic MPs is that without the Withdrawal Agreement, there risks being no Brexit at all. Standing beside Theresa May in Brussels, Jean-Claude Juncker said as much himself only Monday night.

But May’s Deal, as it stands, is commonly thought not to be Brexit. It may be brought back to the Commons to be voted on again, maybe as early as next Tuesday, but nothing at all has changed or been altered from when the ERG voted it down last time. However, Speaker John Bercow also holds the power to block this.

The threat being made is a legitimate one. If an extension long enough for us to participate in the European elections is implemented, then No Brexit at all is a real risk.

The extension would furthermore allow more unreasonable demands from the European Union, such as a second referendum or increased payments. The terms on which we would leave could become so unappealing that it would make the prospect of remaining a full member the preferable option.

However, in all of this speculation one factor is discounted: the British public. Before Thursday’s vote, an extension was shown to be decisively unpopular and the ERG bear no responsibility for such a course of action. At the moment, their hands remain clean.

If they want them to remain so and hold faith with the public they represent, they must not be coerced into accepting a deal against their principles that would keep the UK a vassal state of the EU and see us hand over absurd amounts of money. The intimidation and pressure on the group to break their resolve is in the offer of a false choice laid before them by the hypocrisies of the rest of the House of Commons. To many in the ERG, it is Remain or Remain.

Public trust in British politics is at an all-time low and an overwhelmingly tiny fraction of the public believe Parliament has come out of the Brexit process in a good light (6% according to ComRes). The electorate is watching what will now unfold closely. All accountability in going against the promises made to the British people to leave the EU after the referendum and voting to trigger Article 50 lies with the rest of the Commons – not the Labour eurosceptics, the DUP or the ERG.

Whatever anti-democratic processes are carried out next, the ERG must realise they should have no part in them – and let the anti-Brexit MPs electorally dig their own graves.

If they want to call their own bluff they will be doing so to the detriment of their own faith with the British public and will likely be punished at the next election. Ignore the intimidation and threats of trust-breaking anti-democratic decisions. They are screaming for consent from Brexiteers. Something, in reality, that would be capitulation. It remains the case that the Withdrawal Agreement must not be supported.

Photocredit:  ©UK Parliament/Mark Duffy