Iain Dale: This disconnect between MPs and their constituents can't be healthy
PUBLISHED: 11:55 21 January 2019 | UPDATED: 12:03 21 January 2019
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Columnist Iain Dale says this week's events in parliament show the big gap between some MPs and the people they are supposed to represent
Loyalty, loyalty, what price loyalty? Given the events in parliament this week you might think that our local MPs might have shaken off the shackles of party loyalty and allegiance, but not a bit of it. Political parties are and always have been tribes. You’re elected under a party banner and in normal times you obey party discipline.
There’s nothing wrong with that in many ways. Our parliamentary democracy wouldn’t function without MPs being whipped to toe the party line but on big issues, especially constitutional issues, these party lines are often frayed. I remember the then Great Yarmouth MP Michael Carttiss being a leading rebel over the Maastricht votes in the 1990s. Former Norwich North MP Ian Gibson often rebelled against his party during the Blair era.
I well remember the Sunday Trading Bill in 1986, when I was working for the then Norwich North Conservative MP, Patrick Thompson. Patrick was a natural loyalist and went through agonies before deciding to rebel against Margaret Thatcher’s proposals to extend Sunday opening hours. The pressure the whips put on him to change his mind had to be seen to be believed.
Given 118 Conservative MPs – nearly 40pc of the total – voted against their own party on the Brexit ‘meaningful vote’ on Tuesday evening, you might have expected several of our Tory MPs in Norfolk and Suffolk to have rebelled as well. Not a bit of it. Only one did – South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon. Clearly government ministers like Brandon Lewis, Liz Truss, Therese Coffey and Chloe Smith had to toe the line, otherwise they would have had to quit their posts.
Norfolk and Suffolk are very Eurosceptic areas, but our two counties are represented in the main by MPs who voted Remain in the referendum. This phenomenon is reflected in parliament. 52pc of us may have voted Leave but only about 30pc of MPs did. Of the 16 MPs in Norfolk and Suffolk, only two – Richard Bacon and Sir Henry Bellingham - voted Leave in 2016. That’s only 12.5pc of the total.
This illustrates the disconnect between MPs and their constituents. While we live in a representative democracy, rather than a mandatory one, this disconnect cannot be healthy. We know that there were around three million people who took part in the referendum who hadn’t ever really engaged with politics or any part of our democracy before. Many of them cast their vote for the first time. Those who voted Leave are already feeling an immense sense of betrayal. They are clearly not going to get the Brexit they voted for. Indeed, I am beginning to think they might not get any form of Brexit at all.
Many of these people live in areas that politicians have appeared to ignore over many decades. The Brexit vote allowed them to think that things might change. To many, those hopes now appear to have been dashed, as politicians from all parties collude to frustrate any form of Brexit worth the name. We really are heading for BRINO – Brexit In Name Only – or maybe even no Brexit at all. Given the scale of the Prime Minister’s defeat on Tuesday, there is no obvious way forward to extract us from the shambles the government now finds itself in. I think it is almost inevitable that if a no-deal Brexit is to be avoided, an extension to Article 50 will be sought, and we won’t leave as planned on March 29.
The trouble is, there are a number of ‘irreconcilables’ on the Tory benches on both extremes. The European Research Group is about 70 strong and they now want to leave with no deal. Then there are around 20 hard Remainers who view leaving with no deal as a worse prospect than a Corbyn-led government. Both should be very careful what they wish for.
Contact Iain at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @iaindale