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Parliament cannot bind a future Parliament

Brexiters often say that the referendum result is a done deal and cannot be changed. But that’s not how our democracy works.

Yes, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 became law in June last year. The then International Trade Minister, Liam Fox, said at the time:

“Lest anyone is in any doubt, the chances of Britain not leaving the EU are now zero.”

But as far as we know, only the laws of physics can’t be changed.

Under our constitution, Parliament is not allowed to bind a future Parliament to any decision. The result of any past vote can be undone by a new vote.

But that’s not the way our new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, sees things.

What Mr Johnson now appears to be planning is that – as widely anticipated – on losing a vote of no confidence in early September, he will ensure that a subsequent general election only takes place after 31 October, by which time the UK will have left the EU by legal default.

By doing this, Mr Johnson would be ensuring that any possible new government in early November was presented with a fait accompli – Britain as an ex-member of the EU – whether or not that was what a new government wanted or had promised in their manifesto.

In essence, Mr Johnson would be binding a future Parliament and government to a binding decision in the middle of a general election campaign.

But just because he could, doesn’t mean he should.

It would represent a devious and undemocratic way of manipulating our Parliamentary democracy, that goes against the spirit and convention of Parliamentary procedures.

It would be an act by the new Prime Minister undertaken entirely in bad faith.

Today, constitutional experts are arguing as to whether Mr Johnson could do this. That just shows how our uncodified constitution is no longer fit for purpose. The powers of a Prime Minister who has lost a vote of no confidence should be much clearer.

Look at it this way:

Parliament voted against Theresa May’s deal, and it voted against no deal.

So, for the UK to leave the EU without allowing Parliament – and us, the people, in a new general election – any further say on Brexit would be tantamount to the actions of a dictatorship, not a premiership.

If the new Prime Minister truly believes in democracy (clearly, he does not) then he would ensure that, on losing a vote of confidence, the resulting general election takes place before we leave on 31 October.

Or alternatively, he could ask the EU for another extension beyond 31 October, to enable time for a new general election. The EU has said it would agree to that in such circumstances.

That would allow a new government that won power on a manifesto promise to revoke Article 50 or to offer the people a new referendum on Brexit the opportunity to fulfill that pledge, before we actually left.

It’s now over three years since the referendum, and we now know so much more than we did then. In a true democracy, voters are allowed to change their minds, especially if the circumstances have changed – as they have.

Brexit should be stoppable if that’s now what Britain wants. That’s entirely democratic.

But Mr Johnson says Britain must leave the EU on 31 October come what may, do or die, whether or not that is what the British electorate wants in a new general election.

That’s entirely undemocratic.

  • About democracy – 1-minute video by Jon Danzig:

▪ Read more about Parliamentary democracy.

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