Parliament has utterly failed the voters on Brexit

There is a clip doing the rounds on the internet at the moment.

We see Theresa May brave the flashbulb firing squad on her way into Number 10 and then, with the help of a lookalike and some clever editing, she closes the famous black oak door and slumps against the wall before unleashing a volley of profane gesticulations in the direction of the Press pack.

While I’m sure the Prime Minister is far too much the vicar’s daughter to indulge in such behaviour, few could blame her for wanting to tell the whole world to beggar off right now. Her ostrich-like form was battered around Westminster again last week, as MPs voted, briefed and plotted against her. And that was just her own side.

Parliament delivered an historic defeat to her Brexit deal then voted that it retained confidence in her government. Denied the dignity of a dagger in the back, she has been left wounded and desperately trying to salvage the one policy she’ll be remembered for. Her former ministers openly plot to usurp her and scupper Brexit in the process.

In 67 days, the UK is scheduled to leave the European Union and Mrs May is running out of options. Hopes of reviving her (practical if unloveable) deal are slim. The hardline Brexiteers of the European Research Group will not vote for a settlement that includes an Irish backstop. Continuity Remain will not back a deal short of single market and customs union membership; others simply oppose Brexit in all forms.

The country now stands on the brink of crashing out without a deal. We have been brought here by Tory MPs convinced there are more concessions to be extracted from Brussels and by Labour MPs who calculate that taking us to the precipice will scare some sense into us and we’ll beg for a People’s Vote.

The rank irresponsibility is galling. These are the people pontificating about how Brexit has thrown Britain into a state of crisis. Parliament was somewhat less bothered about such an eventuality when it voted to put the matter to the people and when it backed Mrs May’s precipitous triggering of Article 50. They are not to blame, though. A big referendum did it and ran away.

I’m not fond of referendums but that’s because I’m a crotchety constitutionalist and regard them as a foreign imposition wholly unsuited to our parliamentary system. Your Swiss are daft for direct democracy. In the time it’s taken us to vote on and then try to achieve Brexit, they’ve held nine plebiscites.

The Americans can’t get enough of what they call ballot initiatives and this endorsement by the hot-head nation tells you all you need to know about this most hot-headed form of democracy.

Referendums are a pretence that complex policy dilemmas with far-reaching consequences can be boiled down to a sentence on a ballot paper. They can’t and when you try you polarise the public between two competing fictions because that’s how you win elections: oversimplify and oversell.

Brexit will not line our pockets with gold and nor will it see a return to the workhouse but normally sensible people have convinced themselves otherwise according to their constitutional preference.

To blame referendums for being divisive is like kicking a dog for barking. However, having held one and, in the case of Labour and the Tories, pledged to implement the result in their election manifestos, it is incumbent on MPs to make the least worst job of it.

They have failed and they have failed mightily. In some cases, it is because they didn’t even try. While the country voted 52/48 for Leave, MPs overwhelmingly voted Remain and were horrified by the result. The people had spoken and got it wrong.

At this point, a smug patrician mindset kicked in. The voters had to be saved from themselves; they had no idea what they had done; some of them didn’t even have a Financial Times subscription. Paternalism, not democracy, is the impetus behind the People’s Vote campaign.

On the other extreme lurk the backbench Brexiteers of the Tory Party, an odd bunch who share joint custody of a single pinstripe suit and are led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who entered Parliament after escaping from an episode of Upstairs, Downstairs.

These are the MPs who banged on about Europe for years, making life miserable for every Tory leader since Mrs T, and eventually strong-armed David Cameron into holding a vote.

But rather than work with the Prime Minister to achieve what they most desire, the Brexit hawks are at war with Number 10 to secure a purer, more absolutist Brexit. In pursuit of their ideal, they are willing to sacrifice the readiest means of achieving it.

In their own way, the Brexit hawks are paternalists too for while the voters just want to leave and be done with it, they insist Mrs May is offering the wrong kind of Brexit and believe themselves uniquely capable of discerning authentic from fake Brexit.

More important to most MPs than whether Brexit is delivered is who gets the blame if the doom-mongers turn out to be prescient and the effluence hits the fan. Brexiteers want to keep their hands clean to avoid personal blame and be able to argue that Brexit was a fine idea stuffed up by a Remainer prime minister.

Across the floor, Labour MPs know if they throw their support behind Mrs May’s deal, their party will share responsibility for the fallout.

The SNP, for their part, have shifted their position on Europe with dizzying regularity. It is difficult to shake the conclusion that SNP policy is no longer made at party conference but decided each morning at the Murrells’ breakfast table.

Theresa May has every right to feel frustrated but so do the voters. They have done their part. They turned out to vote. They know these things aren’t straight-forward but they expect the democratic will to be carried through, whether politicians approve of their choices or not.

If MPs can’t do that, some voters are bound to conclude that what we need are more decisions taken by referendum and far fewer by MPs.


Glasgow South MP Stewart McDonald was forced to call police to his surgery at Pollokshaws Library on Friday after far-Right rabble-rouser ‘Tommy Robinson’ attempted to confront him. Mr McDonald has since had to suspend his Facebook page after a tidal wave of abuse from supporters of the English Defence League (EDL) founder.

‘Robinson’, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is the pied piper of the British alt-right and attracts recruits to his cause by posing as a free speech warrior and a defender of children from grooming gangs.

In fact, Yaxley-Lennon is nothing more than a common criminal, with convictions for mortgage fraud, assaulting a fellow EDL member, assaulting an off-duty police officer, and entering the United States on someone else’s passport.

That this former BNP member was able to get so close to an MP is troubling. The far-Right is enjoying a resurgence and it is vital that we be alert to the threat it poses.


SNP MP Douglas Chapman, who is a few casks short of a distillery, fired up the grievance machine last week to bemoan the UK Government advertising An Fear Ciuin whiskey abroad as British rather than Scottish. ‘They think by undermining Scotland it saves their “precious” union,’ he fumed. An Fear Ciuin is made in Northern Ireland.


Agree? Disagree? Want to have your say? Email

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at

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