The last time I did something like this was to urge Labour party members to vote for Smith rather than Corbyn, knowing full well that Corbyn was almost certain to win. Being proved right on that occasion is no consolation, because I would rather have been wrong. This is even more futile, but now as then I feel a decision is about to be made that is both disastrous and irreversible. I also want to say something about the longer term interests of MPs that I have not seen said elsewhere.
There are so many principled reasons for MPs to vote against triggering Article 50. Let me summarise what I see as the main ones here, but this is far from comprehensive.
- The vote was close, and is advisory. Unlike the Scottish referendum, it excluded 16 and 17 year olds, who by the time we actually leave will be able to vote. Demographic trends suggest that at some time in the near future the referendum would go the other way. Migrants from the UK were excluded, even though they are directly affected by the vote and legislation is on the table to give them votes for life in a UK election.
The vote was also won on the basis of clear lies of a kind that have never been used in a UK election before. There is strong evidence that these lies helped swing votes. I would add that the broadcast media facilitated the propaganda coming from most of the tabloid press, in particular by treating knowledge as opinion.
The referendum was only about leaving the EU, and not about how we leave the EU. In particular, it was not about leaving the Single Market. We have no way of knowing which way a referendum on the Single Market would go. May’s logic that the referendum was ‘really’ about immigration and that therefore we have to leave the Single Market is conjecture. Polls on immigration that do not also note the costs of reducing immigration are worthless, like polls that ask about cutting taxes.
A proper response to the referendum would be to note that many ways exist to leave the EU, including staying in the Single Market, and allow parliament to decide what the UK’s negotiating position should be. The statesman like response to such a narrow vote would be to seak the softest of Brexits. The fact that May does not wish that to happen is an affront to parliamentary democracy. That alone is reason enough to vote against.
- [Added 30/1/17] What triggering Article 50 actually means is still unclear. Is it reversible? Do we have to wait until we leave before we can negotiate new trade agreements with the EU? As Rick says, you would not exchange contracts on a house with these kind of fundamental uncertainties unresolved. Why has everything to be so rushed?
But alas, being realistic, this is not the basis on which many MPs will vote. Instead they will think about their political careers, and the backlash they will encounter if they vote No to Article 50. But conventional wisdom on this is at best incomplete and quite probably wrong for many MPs.
The assumption in much of the media, encouraged of course by the tabloids, is that MPs in constituencies that voted Leave will face a backlash from angry Leave voters if they personally vote No to triggering Article 50. However it is far from clear that the number of Leave voters who would change their vote on this basis is greater than the number of Remain voters who will do the opposite. My reason for thinking this is partly the local and national election results since the Brexit votes, where we have seen huge swings to the LibDems in both Remain and Leave constituencies. It is also because, unlike Leave voters, many remain voters are personally affected by the referendum result. They may have family living in the EU, or have close colleagues who are from the EU. They may work in firms that could well decide or be forced to downsize if we leave the Single Market.
If May is defeated on Article 50, she will almost certainly call an immediate election. How will the fortunes of a MP that voted for Yes to triggering Article 50 compare to any that vote No? Labour MPs that vote No will lose some Leave voters, but these are likely to split between Conservatives and UKIP. They may do this even if they vote Yes because they will have read in their papers that Labour is stalling Brexit. Conservative voters that vote No are unlikely to lose many votes to UKIP. Those from either the Conservatives or Labour that vote Yes are likely to lose many Remain voters to the LibDems. How these opposing forces pan out is very difficult to judge, and is likely to vary a great deal across constituencies, and without additional information it is far from obvious why MPs should only worry about Leave voters.
Labour MPs may feel that they are bound to lose badly in a quick election because Corbyn is so unpopular. I think that is right, but for every reason why that might get better by 2020 I can think of reasons why it will get worse.
But all this is thinking short term. MPs that are not ideologically opposed to the EU must surely know that Brexit is very likely to be a disaster. The impact of leaving the Single Market is going to be pretty bad, but as the OBR has made clear the impact of reduced immigration from the EU on the public finances is also going to be large. To tell yourself that this is all uncertain is to deliberately ignore the judgement of the best economists both at home and overseas and the major economic institutions. The outlook for the NHS and other public services is therefore dire.
The government’s position is full of contradictions. They are desperate to make trade deals with anyone, but are prepared to see a sharp fall in trade with the huge market that is our closest neighbour. They say that leaving the EU is to regain sovereignty, but every expert knows that the major gains from trade, particularly for the service orientated UK economy, come from reducing non-tariff barriers which inevitably compromise sovereignty (look at UK trade to the EU before and after we helped create the Single Market). Do we really want to take back control from Europe only to give it to Donald Trump?
The political implications of May’s strategy are more speculative, but initial signs are not good. May now finds herself unable to condemn the immigration policy of President Trump that overtly discriminates against Muslims including UK MPs, and which is the biggest gift to terrorists since Bush talked about a crusade. (At least when that happened Blair was quick to tell him to stop.) May has threatened to turn the UK into a tax haven if the EU do not meet our demands, once again without parliament having any say. All this makes her desire to help the left behind and the just managing into empty words that will become a sick joke. She sees reducing immigration as an absolute priority, which will further hurt business and feed growing UK xenophobia.
All this means that Conservative MPs who will vote with the government because they have ambitions for a ministerial career will find if they succeed that they will spend most of their time administering cuts. If it passes, the Article 50 vote will soon be regarded by Labour members as they now regard the vote over the Iraq war, meaning that those that vote Yes will find it very difficult to achieve a senior position in the Party. Another comparison with similar implications is Suez, another failed attempt to regain a lost imperial past.
All this should make MPs very reluctant to base their decision on perceived self interest, when that cuts so many ways. They should instead heed the words of a well known ex-MP.
“The first duty of a member of Parliament is to do what he thinks in his faithful and disinterested judgement is right and necessary for the honour and safety of Great Britain. His second duty is to his constituents, of whom he is the representative but not the delegate. Burke's famous declaration on this subject is well known. It is only in the third place that his duty to party organization or programme takes rank. All these three loyalties should be observed, but there in no doubt of the order in which they stand under any healthy manifestation of democracy.” Sir Winston Churchill on the Duties of a Member of Parliament. (Source)
prevents her joining leaders in Europe and Canada in condemning Trump's Muslim ban.
 At present there is no mechanism for parliament to stop the process of leaving the EU once they trigger A50, whatever Corbyn may imply. Once we leave, rejoining will almost certainly mean we would have to join the Euro, which is not a good idea..