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Editor's blog

Constitutional meltdown?

12 Aug 19

The fundamentals of our constitution should not be put at risk simply in order to achieve Brexit by the scheduled date

Last August I was observing that despite this usually being a quiet month for current affairs, Brexit was much in the headlines, with a raised profile for the prospect of no deal, following the controversy over the white paper that preceded Theresa May’s ill fated Withdrawal Agreement.

Now we have even more feverish coverage as her successor, who only last month suggested during his election campaign that the chances of no deal were “one in a million”, orders all Government departments to make planning for no deal their top priority, as nothing in his view must stand in the way of the UK leaving the EU on the now due date of 31 October, whatever the consequences.

Why should anyone have supposed that the EU27 would accept that fresh proposals should be made as soon as a new Government was in office? The Withdrawal Agreement was, after all, concluded by the then UK Government, and if it is not deemed acceptable by that Government as now constituted, the onus is not on the EU to bring forward something different. And in demanding that it does, what are we now risking in terms of the UK being seen as a reliable trading partner?

In terms of good government at home, by what stretch of the imagination could it be regarded as acceptable to in effect suspend our elected Parliament – the sovereignty of which was supposed to be one of the principal reasons for leaving the EU – in order that its objections to leaving without a deal, reaffirmed in successive votes over recent months, can be nullified? Yet there are those in Government who quite openly contemplate the prospect, and they appear to include the Prime Minister.

As we go to press, the latest hot topic is whether he could, in the event of a vote of no confidence, defy convention and cling to office, again treating the unimpeded passing of the Brexit deadline as an overriding priority.

The respected Professor Mark Elliott argues that such a course would be neither legal nor constitutional, and even the Queen, as the ultimate guarantor of fundamental constitutional principle, would come under a duty to prevent it should an alternative Government, say of national unity, emerge. To put that to the test would imperil our very institutions, and further entrench the warring factions in our divided public.

The stakes are enormous for all political parties as respects their prospects post-31 October. But none are higher than the potential damage to basic constitutional principles which are in danger of being sacrificed to the reckless pursuit of political objectives. In the national interest, think again.


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