POLITICS
22/01/2019 21:00 GMT

How Four Doctors Have Made A Second Brexit Vote Possible By Ditching Party Tribalism

MPs’ alliance has already defeated the government in July.

The idea of a second EU referendum was routinely laughed out of the room just a few months ago. But, with just weeks before the UK is supposed to quit the bloc, it has surged up the agenda to become a genuine contender as a Brexit ‘plan B’.

At the heart of the effort has been four doctors who put aside party loyalties in parliament last summer to try to ensure voters get a chance to give their “informed consent” to Brexit.

They are now expected to defy some campaigners for a so-called People’s Vote by attempting to test Commons backing for another referendum as early as next week.

The four doctors themselves came together following Tory MP Phillip Lee’s shock resignation as justice minister in June last year, when he first floated the idea of informed consent.

The MP and the other three doctors elected to parliament - Tory Sarah Wollaston, Labour’s Paul Williams and Philippa Whitford from the SNP - already communicated fairly often due to their backgrounds.

But after Lee quit the government, the People’s Vote campaign immediately saw an opportunity.

“The minute that happened we were all giving him a call saying ‘come and join us, the water’s lovely come on in’. So there was naturally an alliance forming,” Wollaston says as the quartet spoke to HuffPost UK.

A month later, the four led a surprise defeat of the government with an amendment to ensure the UK will remain under EU medicines regulation after Brexit.

“It became known as the doctors’ amendment, that’s what the Commons doorkeepers called it,” Whitford explains.

In the weeks and months afterwards they communicated in a WhatsApp group and wider People’s Vote meetings in wood-panelled committee rooms. Whitford says the gatherings are chaired formally “to stop us yacking in an unshaped fashion”.

What ultimately emerged was a plan for the four doctors to lead the parliamentary charge for a so-called People’s Vote by tabling an amendment to Theresa May’s Brexit plan next week.

Tory Phillip Lee's resignation from the government helped bring the group together

Wollaston describes cross-party working as “a refreshing way of doing politics”, and suggests MPs who put aside tribal loyalties are more in touch with voters who want their leaders to just get on with Brexit.

The prime minister and Jeremy Corbyn “are seeing this whole debate through the prism of narrow party interest, what’s best for the future of the Conservative Party or Labour”, she says.

“Frankly that is way down on my list and I think the public don’t really see that as high on their list.”

And while many voters may see politicians as a bunch of squabbling children when they watch big parliamentary events like prime minister’s questions, Whitford and Williams stress that MPs reach out across divides more often than many think, when “adult” decisions are required away from the heat of the chamber.

Whitford even suggests MPs who barrack each other across the floor of Commons may in fact harbour a secret admiration of their opponent.

“One of the nice things here is if you do a good speech you will get a wee note from people in different parts of the House, saying ‘well done, that was brilliant’.

“That really threw me when I came ... people here admire it if you do something really well.”

It became known as the doctors’ amendment, that’s what the Commons doorkeepers called it.SNP MP Philippa Whitford on the doctors' defeat of the government on EU medicines regulation

Williams goes on: “You form these relationships and even if you don’t agree politically, there’s a recognition that there are some issues on which we have to act like adults, and make sure we’re resolving.

“What happens on the floor of the House of Commons is a bit of an act sometimes, and the adult stuff takes place behind the scenes.”

Wollaston agrees, saying MPs from different parties who were lawyers, farmers, businesspeople or anything else before entering politics seem to come together in “informal contacts” due to their “shared past experience and, of course, interest”.

Lee has said the group has bonded so much that there is now perhaps greater trust between them than between MPs and their own frontbenchers.

He feels relationships that have developed across party lines in the Brexit debate may signpost a way forward for taking on society’s biggest challenges, like climate change or ageing populations that “do not fit neatly into five year terms”.

“This understanding and this trust and the relationships that have developed, actually there’s value in them for future challenges the country is going to face,” Lee says.

“It’s very difficult to be positive at all about Brexit but it has fostered better relations and that can only be in the national interest.”