Number 32 Smith Square, Westminster, is a famous address. It used to be the Conservative Party headquarters. From its windows in 1979, in 1983 and in 1987, Margaret Thatcher waved to the crowds celebrating her successive general election victories. Early this century, in an act of real-estate revenge, it became the London office of the European Commission.
It was there, on Wednesday, that a secret meeting took place of the Provisional wing of the Remainer movement – fanatical cells like Open Britain, George Soros’s comically named group Best for Britain, various peers who wish to curtail the power of the elected House of Commons and Tony Blair’s former simple sword of truth, Alastair Campbell – gathered to discuss tactics. (Question to Michel Barnier and EU Commissioners: is it normal for you to lend your premises to people who are trying to undermine the position of the Government with which you are negotiating?).
Who should be spotted joining these desperadoes, but top ultra-Remainer Dominic Grieve, Queen’s Counsel, Conservative Member of Parliament, former Attorney-General and current deputy church warden? Mr Grieve is one of those learned lawyers who use phrases like “jointly and severally” and “inter alios” in real, live conversation, and thus convince the rest of us of their brilliance. He is also a man of conspicuous propriety, like the Pharisee in the Gospel who stands apart and prays: “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are”.
The virtuous Mr Grieve swears that he is not trying to stop Brexit. He specifically told Parliament last year, “No one in this House… wishes to fetter the Government’s hands in negotiations, or indeed the Government’s right to walk away from the negotiations.” In which case, why did he attend the meeting of people who try to do little else? Perhaps he was attempting to dissuade them, or had popped in by mistake, thinking it was still dear old Tory Central Office.
Anyway, the Blessed Dominic and his small new religious order, the Grievous Dominicans, are now very annoyed with the Government. Just when they began boasting on Tuesday that Mrs May had promised them an amendment which would indeed have fettered the Government’s hands in EU negotiations and tied down its feet if it tried to walk away from them, it turned out that she hadn’t.
The MPs who rebelled against the Government on the meaningful vote amendment
Constituency Party 2016 referendum result
Leave – 52.5%
Mr Kenneth Clarke
Remain – 58.5%
Constituency referendum results estimates: Chris Hanretty
The Government’s amendment twice uses the phrase “in neutral terms”, words which, under Standing Orders, make the matter voted on unamendable. This angered the Right Super-Honourable and Learned Member for Beaconsfield because it stops the “meaningful” Commons vote on any Brexit deal which he and his allies seek being altered at the last moment to meaningfully mean something else. The House will be able to vote to accept or reject the Brexit deal, but not to set a date for a deal or to take charge of the negotiations or to prevent a “no deal” option being available.
The Grievous Dominicans are also angry because such a parliamentary vote would not enable those trying to stop Brexit – a category which does not, I repeat on St Dominic’s behalf, include the great man himself – to start that Gina Miller business all over again. They cannot take the British Government to court, thus passing the future of our country into the hands of the pro-Remain Lady Hale of Richmond, President of the Supreme Court, and her fellow judges. Only just in time, Mrs May has prevented a gigantic, lawyer-led filibuster from taking over the process.
This insistence by hardline Remainers on what is called a “meaningful vote” makes me laugh – though perhaps I should cry. Just as the phrase “affordable housing” is a constant reminder that most housing is unaffordable, so “meaningful vote” calls to mind the fact that so many votes are meaningless.
I think, for example, of countless votes in Parliament over the years, when MPs protested vainly against measures from Brussels which, under the European treaties, they had no power to refuse or even amend. I think, too, of all the referendums in other European countries – Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands – in which the voters have thrown out Brussels acts or proposals only to be forced to vote again to give the “right” result.
When we had our own referendum two years ago next week, the idea, clearly stated by those who framed the legislation, was that this would be the meaningful vote. If we voted Leave, we would Leave. We did vote Leave – the biggest vote for one thing in our history – yet some of those who voted Remain are still trying to drain our vote of meaning.
Obviously the referendum result was upsetting for Remainers. Some protested, understandably, that their feelings should not be forgotten in the ensuing process. But that, too, was dealt with in a meaningful vote: in 2017, we had a general election. Unreconciled Remainers had the chance to vote Liberal Democrat, but only just over two million did so. Nearly 24 million people voted either Conservative or Labour. Both parties were committed to implementing Brexit. Thus the election re-authorised Brexit, adding many Remain votes to existing Leave ones.
Parliament voted too. It voted to trigger Article 50 (494 votes in favour). It voted by 322 to 101 to reject an amendment keeping us in the single market and the Customs Union. It voted for the Second Reading of the Withdrawal Bill and, last week, to stop a series of amendments designed to wreck that Bill. That’s quite a lot of meaningful votes already. Why these extra, special, flagellatory ones with Grievous Dominican knobs on?
These unyielding Remainers now assert that all they care about is parliamentary sovereignty. It is a concept with which, over the years of Brussels rule, they have grown rusty. They seem to think it means that MPs should be the Government, and therefore conduct the negotiations. It doesn’t, and it never has. Any government emerges from Parliament and cannot survive a day without its confidence, but Parliament should not – cannot – run the country.
If Parliament could tell the Government exactly what to negotiate, it might pass “meaningful” votes to its heart’s content, but Britain’s power to negotiate would collapse. The Commons might as well email its decisions direct to M Barnier, who would then ignore them. Parliament already has negotiators on its behalf: they are called “The Government”.
It is impossible for the Government to implement a Brexit deal without Parliament. If Parliament does not want it, it will vote it down, causing the Government to fall. No parliamentary vote can get more meaningful than that. Everything else is just a spanner in the works. More and more non-sectarian Remainers, I notice, can see this, and are getting fed up with the fanaticism of the Grievous Dominicans.
I am not sorry, though, that the phrase “meaningful vote” now bulks so large. It is at the heart of the whole, long argument about our membership of the EU. Over centuries, Britain achieved a parliamentary system based on the idea that people’s votes, and the votes of the people they voted for, were meaningful. Then it gave half of this away to Europe. By voting Leave, we insisted that our votes must recover their meaning. If that vote is now rendered meaningless, we shall lose faith in voting itself. Then there will be Hell to pay.