Speaking at Heathrow airport today, prime minister Theresa May said:
“I think we all have to remember, and what MPs and peers have to remember, is that we had a vote on 23 June. The British people, the majority of the British people, voted to leave the European Union. The government is now getting on with that.”
If I may, I don’t think anyone has actually forgotten there was a referendum on 23 June. The reality of that experience is currently quite strong at the moment. “Majority” means the majority of those who voted, by the way, not actually a majority of those who were eligible to vote.
She went on:
“I want to ensure that we get the best possible deal for the UK as we leave the EU, that’s the best possible deal for trading with and operating within the single European market. But alongside that, the UK will be a confident, outward-looking nation, taking its place on the world stage, looking to build relationships around the globe.”
How to decide what is the “best possible deal”? It can’t be derived from the result of the vote on 23 June, because there was nothing in the referendum question about what should replace EU membership, merely that it should be replaced. The referendum has not settled that question.
The government might have the job of negotiating the deal, but can the decision about “best possible” be left to them? That would be rather alien to our traditions as a country, which provide for the government to be accountable to parliament. So if parliament is to have a role in this decision, how should it exercise that role? Should it be at the beginning and throughout the process, when it can influence and control what the government is doing, or should it merely when it is too late to make a difference?
If Theresa May does not want parliament involved at the outset – she is appealing against the decision last Thursday that parliament should vote before Article 50 is triggered –she needs to explain what she thinks parliament should be allowed to do. The silence on this crucial issue is deafening.