Brexit: The Fight Back

14/10/2016 17:07 | Updated 17 October 2016
Chet_W via Getty Images

Well, well, the Labour party has finally got its mojo back. After a year of trauma-induced civil war, Labour MPs seem to have suddenly woken up and remembered what they're paid for: they are Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, and their job is to oppose the government.

Take a bow, Keir Starmer, the fresh-out-of-the-box shadow Brexit secretary, who leapt into action as soon as he was appointed and immediately discombobulated the prime minister. Take another bow, Ed Miliband - remember him? - who galvanised his fellow MPs, from all parties, into challenging Mrs May's Brexit-means-whatever-I-say-it-means power grab.

Sir Keir, as you may remember (yes, he really was named after Keir Hardie), is a former director of public prosecutions who was first elected to parliament only last year. The unlamented former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith absurdly dismissed him as a 'second rate lawyer' the other day, a jibe that even he realised was so crass that he felt compelled to apologise the following day.

We hear a lot from the Brexiteers about the 17,410,742 people who voted for Britain to leave the EU. It was the will of the people, we are told, and parliament is morally, if not legally, bound to act in accordance with their wishes. The truth, of course, is that it was the will of 37.4% of the electorate. We hear rather less about the 16,141,241 people who voted for Britain to remain in the EU, representing 34.6% of the total electorate. The UK, in other words, is fairly evenly split, and the government would do well to acknowledge it.

So the prime minister's grandiloquent claim at the Tory party conference that the country has voted for a 'quiet revolution' was, shall we say, a terminological inexactitude. And MPs are well within their rights, as the elected representatives of the people of the UK, to represent all their constituents equally, not just those who Mrs May chooses to believe see the world in exactly the same way as she does.

This does not mean that MPs should try to reverse the result of the referendum. Not yet, anyway. It does mean that they have a duty to challenge, question, and probe every claim that the government makes and every action that it takes, in the interests of the country as a whole. That is what they are there for.

And let's hear no more of this nonsense about how Remainers should just quietly accept the result of the referendum and stop complaining. Is that what the Brexiteers did when they lost in 1975? Of course, it isn't - they kept on complaining, and campaigning, and organising, until they got what they wanted. Remainers are perfectly entitled to do exactly the same.

Mrs May, the chancellor Philip Hammond, and the home secretary Amber Rudd, all believe - or believed - that it would be in Britain's best interests to remain a member of the EU. You would expect, perhaps, in the circumstances, that they would do everything they can, while respecting the result of the referendum, to minimise the damage likely to be caused by ripping up the UK's membership card and slamming the door as we storm out.

There is another way, and they know it. But Mrs May has chosen, in her own words, to 'seize the day', to do all the things she has long wanted to do - reduce immigration, re-introduce grammar schools, and turn her back on the UK's international human rights obligations.

On the subject of which: is someone going to ask her why her foreign secretary apparently thinks Russia should be investigated for war crimes committed in Syria, while her defence secretary thinks UK troops should no longer be subject to the Human Rights Convention? It is so shameful that it gives hypocrisy a bad name.

Perhaps it will eventually be something like the Great Marmite Crisis that will persuade her to think again. Not about UK troops being permitted to commit human rights abuses with impunity (have we really come to this? Have we learnt nothing from the past?), but about the very real impact that a plummeting pound, to be followed by rising inflation and decreased investment, will have on real voters.

How's this for a scenario? Mrs May sends off her Article 50 letter next February or March, and the clock starts ticking. France and Germany are so embroiled in their own election campaigns that their response to the UK's formal notification amounts to little more than: 'Oh, you're leaving? What a shame.'

Businesses and investors start to panic. This is not what they had in mind. Prices rise, as does unemployment. MPs, most of whom are not pro-Brexit, start to feel the pressure from frightened constituents. Can Mrs May stop the clock? Can anyone?

No one has thought this through. A legal challenge is now before the courts and could force the government to seek MPs' approval before posting that fateful Article 50 letter. Never has a coherent, united, determined opposition been more essential.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Keir Starmer, your country needs you.

And if you still feel in need of some cheering up, this might help. There's even a voice in it that you might recognise.