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What Did Wednesday's Vote On Article 50 Change? Nothing - The Government Still Has No Brexit Plan

08/12/2016 17:03 GMT | Updated 09/12/2017 10:12 GMT
NIKLAS HALLE'N via Getty Images

It can be a funny place, Brexit-Britain. On Tuesday night we went to bed and all was well. On Wednesday morning we woke up to find that the Number Ten spin doctors had been hard at work overnight. A bit like the shoe-making elves in a Grimm fairy tale, they were nowhere to be seen but the evidence of their labours was there for all to see, as the Today programme told an awaking nation that later that day MPs would be given a vote and were expected to endorse the government's timetable for triggering Article 50.

It may have been a not so subtle hint to the justices in the Supreme Court that all was well across the road in the Palace of Westminster and that there really was nothing for them to worry their pretty little heads about. Whatever it was meant to be, it was much less impressive product than the spin doctors of Downing Street wanted us to think it was.

In fact, it was an Opposition Day Motion (not binding on the Government) where those on the Treasury Bench and those on the Labour Front Bench had stitched up a deal. In return for a promise of a "plan" (of undetermined content to be published at some unspecified future date) Labour and Tory MPs would march through the lobbies together, shoulder to shoulder, to give Mrs May the control that she wanted over the most important negotiation that our country will ever face in our lifetime. It is a curious feature of Brexit Britain that the official opposition seems to think its role in Parliament is to wait until the government shows any sign of coming under pressure then to row in behind it.

So what changed after Wednesday's votes? Nothing. The government still has no plan and the country still has no idea of how they will tackle this negotiation. The proceedings in the Supreme Court will still go on and may yet confirm the very strong judgement of the High Court that the Prime Minister does not have the power to do this all by using the Royal Prerogative. Theresa May still sees this (as did David Cameron before her) as an issue of Conservative Party management rather than being of the highest national interest. The only difference seems to be that the Labour Party Front Bench now seem prepared to help her in this. So to the dismay of millions, the Tories and Labour are now walking hand in hand on the road to hard Brexit.

However, this vote does not change the fact that the coalition that made up the 52% on 23 June comprised people with different aims and wishes, many of which are irreconcilable, meaning it is virtually impossible for everyone who voted to leave to get what they wanted. It does not change the need for the people of Britain to be allowed a say on whatever deal the government is eventually able to bring back for us. And it does not change the fact that without a referendum on the deal, we risk leaving our nation split down the middle for a generation or more.

That was why my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I went through the lobbies as part of the 89-strong awkward squad on Wednesday evening. That is why we shall continue to resist the government's determined effort to close out parliament and the people from any further involvement in this process. The government must tell Parliament what they aim to achieve. Parliament must be allowed to do its job in scrutinising that. And the people ultimately must be allowed to have their say on the final deal reached. Surely that is what "taking back control" was all about.

Alistair Carmichael is the Lib Dem MP for Orkney and Shetland