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Westminster vs the people

Prime Minister David Cameron walks into 10 Downing Street, London, with wife Samantha after he announced his resignation after Britain voted to leave the European Union in an historic referendum which has thrown Westminster politics into disarray and sent the pound tumbling on the world markets.

 

At lunchtime on 24th June Gisela Stuart MP, a leading figure of the Vote Leave campaign, received a text message from a friend. “Holy shit,” read the missive. “You’ve just taken down the prime minister. You’ve taken us out of the EU and trillions have been taken off the stock market. It would be useful to know what you’re planning for tomorrow.”

The honourable member for Birmingham Edgbaston considered her reply. “Mowing the lawn,” she replied. “Thank God for that,” came the response.

As Stuart tended her garden, the fallout from the Brexit vote continued. The country’s two main political parties were plunged into aggressive leadership battles. A new ministry for Brexit was created and its staff, lacking an official HQ, started plotting the most complex negotiation in the UK’s post-war history from a temporary base in Starbucks. The police registered a 42 percent year-on-year spike in hate crimes at the end of June, which was attributed in part to bigots emboldened by the Leave victory. Four million people signed an online petition demanding a second referendum. Nigel Farage told members of the European Parliament they had never done a “proper job” in their lives, quit as leader of UKIP and grew a short-lived but much-discussed moustache, before flying to America to praise Donald Trump.

The nation’s parliamentarians, meanwhile, were left in a state of shock by a result that few of them had wanted or expected as this rare foray into direct democracy – only the third nationwide referendum in UK history – collided headlong with Westminster’s system of representative democracy.

During the campaign, 479 MPs declared themselves Remainers, with only 158 coming out for Leave. A major divide was thus exposed between the people and their elected representatives, who now find themselves tasked with engineering an EU breakup to which they are actively opposed. Stuart believes the uprising of the people against the wishes of the establishment is historic. “I wish I could read how this is written up in a hundred years’ time,” she says. “The more I look at the dynamics, the more I think this is Corn Laws, Peasants’ Revolt [territory]… People felt they were deprived of their most fundamental right – that of democratic decision making – and demanded it back.”

The political elite, meanwhile, was largely determined to maintain the status quo. The leaders of every major British political party with the exception of UKIP urged their membership to support the Remain campaign, which mustered heartfelt appeals from the nation’s leading businesspeople, scientists, economists and thespians, dwarfing the endorsements drummed
up by the Leave side. David Cameron co-opted Barack Obama to cheerlead for Team Remain and – according to Leave campaigners – made illegitimate use of government resources to promote the cause. But it was all to no avail. “Rather than influencing the result in favour of Remain, having the political elite, the business elite and foreign statesmen all being on the same side actually irritated the population,” says Times columnist and former Tory MP Matthew Parris. “People thought that they were being presented with a monolithic and rather smug assemblage of people and so were determined to put two fingers up to them.” Parris is clear on the key cause of the Brexit vote. “It was immigration that swung it for Leave, and even though people say it was ‘taking back control’ that swung it, taking back control for many people was a proxy for immigration,” he says.

There has been no shortage of additional reasons mooted for the Leave vote. It was a howl of pain from voters in areas where the free market means little more than a downward pressure on jobs. It marked the emergence of a post-fact society in which politicians make unsubstantiated claims and the public reacts by rejecting all expert advice. It was Jeremy Corbyn’s fault for not sufficiently hiding his long-held euroscepticism; David Cameron’s for using a national referendum for party-management purposes; Boris Johnson’s for cynically throwing his weight behind Leave to boost his appeal to the Tory party faithful. The fault of the young for not turning out, the fault of the old for turning up…

“MPs now find themselves tasked with engineering an EU breakup to which they are actively opposed”

The first potential test of the relationship between the newly defiant electorate and the House of Commons could come in the form of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which details the procedure for a member’s withdrawal from the EU. Its 259 words of surprisingly unspecific legalese have been pored over in great detail since the vote, to see whether parliamentary approval is needed to activate the get-out clause. Theresa May does not plan to take Article 50 to a Commons vote but may yet be derailed by a legal challenge – one, led by law firm Mishcon de Reya, is already in progress. If May gets her way, the next opportunity for soul-searching may not come until the outline of an exit deal is put before the House. Parris believes any such vote is likely to take place in the same heated climate as the referendum. “I think the campaigns raised the temperature and lowered standards. I don’t see any sign of that going away or any sort of reconciliation. I think it’s still all there under the surface,” he says.

According to Dr Ruth Fox, director and head of research at the Hansard Society, a charity dedicated to strengthening parliamentary democracy, political standards had been lowered long before campaigning began. “Successive governments could be found guilty of constitutional vandalism and irresponsible leadership,” she says. “There’s a lack of attention to detail, a failure to agree and apply principles and a veering from one issue to another with a make-it-up-as-you-go approach driven by party and media management. And this is where you end up.” In the case of the 2015 Referendum Act, which committed the country to a decision on EU membership and was waved through in the Commons by a majority of six to one, Fox cites the failure to specify whether the result would be advisory or binding or to require a minimum turnout. Both omissions have since proved controversial sticking points. “When you play a game, you have rules and you pay attention to the rules and you enforce them,” she says. “The rules matter.”

What’s becoming clear, after the dust settles on the referendum, is that there is no rule book for the next stage – organising an orderly exit from the EU. Westminster will need to pick a path between highly polarised positions and bridge the major new fault lines that have been opened by the Brexit vote. It won’t be easy. “People have taken entrenched positions and they’re still in their trenches”, says Parris. “I don’t see any sign of people coming out of them yet.”

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