A second referendum is beginning to look like Britain’s only way out of the maze. Photo: Rex/shutterstock

Dominic Grieve: It's time for MPs to put country before party

Our tribes are dysfunctional, but they won’t break down before Brexit. MPs must work across them—and let go of any "new centrist party" ideas
August 19, 2018

As a Conservative Remainer MP I have spent the last two years hoping that the process of Brexit might come to change my opinions on the risks I saw it bringing to our economic wellbeing, our national security and our quality of life. But despite my best efforts to try to see silver linings to clouds, I find myself today even more strongly of the view that we are heading for a deeply dangerous outcome, even a calamitous “no deal,” which would constitute the biggest peacetime crisis in our modern history. I believe that MPs from all parties must work together to prevent a damaging hard exit.

But I am also mindful that some Conservative Party members do not share this view. It is a feature of the debate that I receive emails from those who insist to me that Brexit must take one form only. Invariably, this is followed by the demand that we must leave the single market and the European Economic Area, not engage in any customs union with the European Union and ensure that any role for the European Court of Justice is eliminated. They then insist that they knew exactly what they were voting for in 2016 and demand that I carry out their instructions from which no deviation can be tolerated. 

The problem is that this was not the referendum question. It established the principle of leaving the EU but left open the form of relationship we might have with it once we were out. It allowed for plenty of speculation on how it might best be done with none of the moderation that the realities of a negotiation inevitably brings. Furthermore some Leave-voting correspondents still argue for a very different vision of the future, involving a much closer relationship with the EU. I am sure “Remain” voters will have had equally differing reasons for voting as they did.

The abstract nature of the question asked and the complexity of implementing Brexit, is haunting our politics. It exposes differences of opinion in both main parties and has created such a lack of common purpose within the government that it is paralysing it, with the doctrine of collective responsibility all but abandoned. The Chequers summit and the White Paper were intended to restore this, but it is now being ruthlessly undermined by ministerial resignations and the hard Brexiters of my party. Chequers is likely to be rejected by the EU in its present form. Labour will never support it, as its priority, in the absence of any policy of its own, is trying to bring the government down. Yet there is little to suggest that another general election will provide greater clarity as to what policy should be adopted for carrying out Brexit. On the contrary, the result may just contribute to even deeper disenchantment of the electorate with the political process. 

Some are suggesting that what is needed is a realignment of the political parties which reflects these divisions. I can’t see this working. The philosophical differences on a wide range of economic and social issues which separate Remain-supporting Conservative and Labour MPs do not lend themselves to the creation of some new “Centre Party,” even before one looks at the varieties of thought within the small group of Liberal Democrat colleagues at Westminster and amongst their supporters. As we saw with the creation of the SDP in the 1980s, it may act as a catalyst for change within the main parties themselves: as eventually happened through New Labour. But a new party would struggle to create a viable and independent alternative. Besides, the prospect we are facing over a no-deal Brexit cannot be met by some long term change in political alignments. Its risks are immediate.

But that does not mean that there is nothing that can be done. There are important areas of agreement between many MPs of mainstream parties and the capacity for us to co-operate to deliver specific outcomes. The more difficult question is whether or not there is the will to do this. Ties of loyalty play an understandably important part in how most MPs interact with their own party and the supporters who have elected and sustained them in their careers. As I know personally it is the strain put on those ties which constitutes the most unpleasant aspect of being at variance with one’s own party line. It is a sign, however, of the growing dysfunction in party loyalty that whereas I was first attacked for voting against the government over parts of the EU Withdrawal Bill, the criticism now is of my unwillingness to join in rejecting outright the PM’s white paper.

The question therefore is of our willingness as MPs to work together to put the national interest before any other. This is why we must consider a further referendum if it becomes clear that no government proposal is viable or it cannot in any event get parliamentary support. The arguments that this is in violation of the 2016 result are without merit. There is clear logic for a major constitutional change being a two-fold process by which the principle is first approved and then confirmed when the details are clearer. It presupposes nothing. If the electorate are determined to leave then this will happen. If they are of a changed mind it would be better to know this now than from their disappointment later.

But to do this we all have a duty not to be bullied into inaction. We need to work together to either achieve a form of Brexit that does not threaten our future or ensure that the decision to complete departure is the electorate’s informed choice.