A vote to trigger Article 50 was not a vote for no deal

My fellow MPs and I sanctioned no such thing but hardline Leavers are distorting the truth

August 06, 2019
MPs voted to start the timer—but did they sanction leaving on WTO terms?
MPs voted to start the timer—but did they sanction leaving on WTO terms?

The most remarkable aspect of Brexit is the hardening of public and political opinion, on both sides. Whereas once parliament could unite to support the bill giving the government the power to invoke Article 50 by 498 votes to 114, now MPs cannot unite around a single position except that no deal is unacceptable.

As one of those 498, I look on with horror at how my vote to put the UK on the road to leaving with a deal has been warped and twisted by a tiny minority of no dealers, into the suggestion that a majority of MPs backed a no-deal Brexit and that therefore it is a legitimate option to pursue.

Contrary to what some may think, MPs put a lot of thought into how to vote, especially on issues as weighty as Brexit. The image of backbench MPs as “lobby-fodder,” thoughtlessly trotting off to vote for whatever the leader tells them, is woefully inaccurate.

So, when I voted to give the government the power to trigger Article 50, I was torn between several competing hopes and fears. I was, and remain, of the view that the referendum result must be delivered, but that security cooperation with the EU must be maintained and that—to quote my remarks in the debate—“we must negotiate the best possible deal for our economy.”

The argument about the damage a no-deal Brexit will do is already well rehearsed. Nobody who thinks that no deal will be a walk in the park can be convinced by another statistic or study showing the opposite. As such, I will not repeat those arguments here. However, it is deceitful to suggest that because 498 MPs voted for the bill, that indicates support for a WTO Brexit.

In fact, I shared the concerns of Dominic Cummings, the former campaign director of Vote Leave now in No 10, that triggering Article 50 too quickly would be, in his words “like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.” However, I weighed this against the EU’s refusal to commence even informal negotiations until we pressed “go,” and the reassurances I received that “of course” we would leave with a deal and the government had a plan to deliver one within the two-year timeframe.

My constituents sent me to Westminster to get things done, and as such—despite reservations—I voted to set Brexit in motion. Many MPs used the debate and Theresa May’s statement to make clear their opposition to crashing out.

I did not count on a group of the most passionate Brexiteers voting against Brexit on the grounds that it wasn’t Brexit—quite a contortion which I did not anticipate. To suggest that thanks to the decision of the European Research Group “Spartans” in 2019, my vote in 2017 now implicitly means I supported a no deal, is mere sophistry.

Yes, no deal is the legal default. But the idea that the technical legal position matters more than the political position of our sovereign parliament is to relegate MPs to spectators, and reduce parliament to a mere debating society, impotent and unable to act in the face of economic and social turmoil. It is not what people voted for when they elected their MPs, nor what they voted for in the referendum.

The suggestion that the government might tear up all convention by simply ignoring the will of MPs, allowing Britain to crash out on WTO terms, is all the more outrageous for those who remember being told that voting to leave would restore faith in politics, and return control from Brussels to a sovereign parliament.

If we are to truly restore faith, politics must be something bigger than strict matters of the law in isolation from political reality. It must be a means of creating compromise between different groups of people with different aims—it is in that spirit I voted for Article 50, not in the expectation of an outcome which would cripple my constituency.

If the votes of MPs like me are to be misrepresented to claim legitimacy for a chaotic no-deal exit, then we must also be ready to act once again to avert such an outcome. If we don’t, we risk not only the UK’s economic welfare and social cohesion, but also the backlash from voters who would see that for all our talk, we were unwilling to act to prevent something so manifestly damaging to their lives.