Can MPs vote against article 50?

Being played out in court at the moment is a case regarding the powers of parliament. Does the government have the constitutional right to trigger British departure from the EU on the strength of an explicitly non-binding referendum without parliamentary assent?

For the record, the votes cast were these

Leave 17,410,742 37%
Remain 16,141,241 35%
Did not vote 12,948,018 28%
Total electorate 46,500,001

And the campaign was one of the most atrociously dishonest in British political history.

So, one can see why the mandate given to the government might be less than overwhelming. Equally, one can see that it is nevertheless a mandate.

But a mandate only to leave the EU, not a mandate to do anything else. And that’s the point.

Leaving the EU is only a part of the story: what comes next matters too. And it is entirely correct that parliament might not embark the nation on a risky journey until the destination is settled. They might, but they might prefer not to.

There is a precedent for this.

In the late 1990s, when the new Labour government was proposing to remove hereditary peers from the House of Lords, there was bitter resistance from the cross-benches. Yes, there is a mandate to remove us from the House of Lords, they said: this is a democracy. We will agree to go. But we will not agree to go until we know what will replace us.

And it was the replacement that had not been thought about. In the end, the compromise was to remove all but 92 hereditaries and those that remained were elected from amongst the total. Now, when a hereditary member of the Lords dies, there is a by-election to choose a replacement from amongst the members of the same party. Most recently, John Boyle, 15th Earl of Cork and Orrery, was elected to fill a vacancy among the cross-benchers.  He won his seat by 15 votes to 8, so congratulations to him.

But is this not absurd? And the places vacated by the hereditaries who left were filled by political party nominees, appointed by party leaders. Tony Blair nominated 162 Labour peers, Gordon Brown 11, and David Cameron 110 Conservatives.

If this is better than a house full of hereditaries, it is not by much. And it is not what was in the Labour manifesto of 1997. The Lords resisters were entitled to point that out.

Government by mandate can be a dangerous thing. Far better is government by argument. MPs could be forgiven for thinking the same.

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