In thwarting Brexit, Parliament risks populist backlash

The Brexit soap opera has been chock full of twists but a crossover with Prisoner Cell Block H is one no one saw coming.

Lord Macdonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, has raised the spectre of Boris Johnson being banged up for pursuing a no-deal Brexit.

The Prime Minister says he is determined the UK will leave the EU by October 31, despite Parliament passing a law requiring him to ask Brussels for an extension. Macdonald, who headed up the Crown Prosecution Service between 2003 and 2008, said a court order instructing the Government to obey the law would follow and, if the PM still refused, he would face contempt of court charges and even imprisonment.

This only proves how different our customs are to those of our European neighbours. The French at least wait for their prime ministers to leave office before jailing them.

The criminalisation of politics is a dangerous path to embark on. Even Nick Cohen, Britain’s finest Left-wing writer, urges us to think of the Johnson government as a ‘crime gang’. One campaigner attempted to bring a private prosecution again the PM for misconduct in a public office over his claims during the EU referendum.

The Electoral Commission accused Brexit activist Darren Grimes of breaching electoral law and handed down a £20,000 fine, only for a judge to rule the 25-year-old had no case to answer.

Remainers can no more litigate away the outcome of the 2016 referendum than MPs can legislate it out of existence. Of course, the Prime Minister should obey the law but those who would rather a legal than a political solution to Brexit should reflect on the company they are straying into. We cannot be very far from chants of ‘lock him up’ at opposition rallies.

The received wisdom within the political and media class is that Johnson’s premiership is already bust. It’s not hard to see why. When a man would rather end his political career than serve in his own brother’s government, it does make you wonder where things are heading. Christmas lunch at the Johnsons’ will be tense this year, and not just while they wait to see who is first to try the chlorinated turkey.

What about outside the liberal elite? What does the country make of all this? Public opinion is open to change and Lord knows polling companies have been wide of the mark before, but the data should give those who practise and write about politics pause for thought.

Survation polling for the Daily Mail suggests a gulf between how events are perceived in SW1 and how they are seen from the rest of the country’s postcodes. Voters want an early election by 48 per cent to 31 per cent and they disagree with MPs blocking one 43 per cent to 35 per cent.

Three-quarters say the political class is not ‘serving the interests of the country’ and they approve of the expulsion of rebel Tory MPs by 43 per cent to 32 per cent. Faced with a choice between no-deal Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister, 52 per cent plump for no-deal — less than a third are for putting the Bennite crank in Downing Street.

These numbers are not astounding for Johnson but they are encouraging. If he is left a tragic figure, denied both Brexit and an early election, and especially if he is carted off in shackles, there is every chance the public will not see him as a rogue tearing up the rule of law but as a sympathetic character persecuted by the establishment for trying to honour the referendum result.

The opposition may have the law on their side but that may not be enough. The British have a reverence for the rule of law but they make a fetish of fair play.

If the dispute comes down to Parliament versus the people, the people will win. Maybe not immediately, maybe not in this Parliament or the next — but a reckoning will be on the cards. Popular sentiment can be waited out (see, for example, the death penalty, attitudes to homosexuality and race relations) but the democratic will cannot be stifled without a price.

Westminster could have held firm against pressure for Scottish devolution in the 1970s. Denying the majority the assembly they voted for (because of a wrecking amendment in the legislation) turned a political preference into an article of faith. The voters had something in their grasp that their betters snatched away.

There is a patrician head-patting to the behaviour of people like Dominic Grieve and Ken Clarke. ‘There, there, silly fellows; we’ll get you out of this mess you’ve got yourselves into.’ It might prove a mess; it might prove a catastrophe. But, as we see with Scottish independence, a sizeable chunk of the electorate either refuses to believe expert warnings or simply ranks identity and sovereignty higher in their order of priorities.

Telling them they got it wrong offers no way forward and nor does pretending there is a quick fix to the situation.

Both sides are peddling the spurious line that they have a solution that will enable us to ‘move past Brexit’. There is no solution that can move us past Brexit because, whatever happens, Brexit is a generational event in British politics.

The half-life of no-deal disruptions to trade, investment, productivity and labour could be prolonged, as would be the blame game for the hardships suffered. Leaving with a deal would merely mark the beginning of years of negotiations to re-establish existing relations as a non member-state. No Brexit at all risks a populist spasm and an enduring culture war cleaving the country down the middle.

Remainers taking heart from the Survation finding that 53 per cent would now vote to stay in the EU should reflect on this: After three of the most turbulent, divisive years in UK politics; after the Leave campaign’s rhetoric has collided with the realities of exiting; after numbers have started attaching to lost investment and jobs, a full 47 per cent of Britons would vote to go through all this again. There’s a reason they’re not calling for a People’s Vote anymore.

Britain needs to rediscover the stiff upper lip for which it is so famous and take ownership of the decision it made on June 23, 2016. It may have been the wrong decision. Many of us think it was. But it was arrived at democratically and in our system that means it must now happen. The emotional incontinence of weeping over imaginary coups and threatening to sentence the prime minister to porridge, of hallucinating that everything other than WTO terms is surrender and black-and-white facts about no-deal merely ‘Project Fear’ — this is not how a serious country behaves.

The voters are comprehensively scunnered with Westminster. It has failed to deliver Brexit. It has failed to overturn Brexit. It has failed. If the political class does not start showing leadership, someone from the outside will. A backlash is not far away.


The news that Gillian Anderson has been cast in the role of Margaret Thatcher in Netflix’s royal drama The Crown has made one MSP very happy. Former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson is fond of both women, though for different reasons. We hope.

Davidson revealed her crush on The X-Files star in a 2016 interview with me and was later scolded by the Mary Whitehouse millennials for posting a raunchy picture of Anderson on Twitter. The woke generation are so precious about gender yet so terrified of sexuality.

When the Anderson announcement was made over the weekend, the Edinburgh Central MSP posted a droll ‘Oh my’ on social media. ‘Calm yourself,’ Murdo Fraser replied.

Anderson, 51, has admitted to ‘falling in love’ with her Iron Lady character. She’s not the only one excited about the performance.

Unfortunately for Davidson, Anderson has been loved up with screenwriter Peter Morgan since 2016. Enjoy her turn if you want to, Ruth; the lady’s not for turning.


Since becoming Liberal Democrat leader in July, Jo Swinson has welcomed five new MPs to the party, an average of one every ten days. There are still 39 independents and if she can recruit just half of them, the Lib Dems will depose the SNP as Westminster’s third party. What a wee shame that would be.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at Feature image © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

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