There’s nothing at all unreasonable in the Prime Minister’s demand that MPs should ‘do their duty’ and ‘act in the national interest’ over Brexit; the problem lies in her insistence that doing both of those things necessarily involves voting for whatever she puts before them. The logic of the leap from the first proposition to the second may be obvious to her, but it isn’t going to be so obvious to many others.
I’ve posted previously that I tend to agree with what appears to be her interpretation of the Brexit vote, namely that the electorate wants firstly to be free of all the EU rules and institutions and secondly to keep all the benefits of membership. Trying to get as close as possible to that outcome is one thing, but I’m astounded that she can have seriously thought for one tiny moment that she could ever negotiate something akin to that. Refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer to such a wholly unreasonable request is what has led to us being where we are. It is clear that any agreement which she can reach is going to seriously compromise one or other or even both of those two aims. Attempting to find a form of words which suggests that she has compromised neither is an impossible task, but the one in which she is currently engaged.
I can understand why many might think that it is the ‘duty’ of MPs, as May says, to support Brexit (even though it was clearly stated to be an ‘advisory’ referendum). Asking the people what they think and then ignoring the outcome cannot be good for democracy. But how open-ended can that be? Can it really be the duty of our elected representatives to vote for something which they believe to be seriously harmful – especially if there is evidence that opinions might have changed?
I can also agree that MPs should indeed vote in the national interest, but who decides what that is? Do we not expect MPs to decide for themselves where they think the national interest lies rather than accept that it’s whatever the PM of the day tells them it is? ‘Doing their duty’ and acting ‘in the national interest’ are precisely the drivers leading MPs to take such a variety of positions over Brexit – that is why the PM is having such difficulty finding any solution for which a majority of MPs can vote with a clear conscience. Demanding that they follow her blindly looks more like expecting them to seek out the last refuge of a scoundrel than to act as thoughtful representatives of the electors. It would have been better if we hadn’t had the first referendum in an attempt to settle an internal Tory Party row. A second one is already too late to completely undo the damage already done, but it still looks like a better way forward than anything they’ve come up with to date.