Nick Clegg, one of the most senior pro-European MPs in the Commons, has said there will be uproar if parliament is not allowed to vote on how Brexit talks are approached and the terms of any deal to leave the EU.
The former deputy prime minister, now Liberal Democrat European affairs spokesman, revealed he had set up a high-level working group both to hold the government to account and to work through the “unavoidable dilemmas” of Brexit.
He also claimed there was a deep tension within the Conservative government between those who see Brexit as a route to a low-regulation, free-market, Asian-style economy, and more traditional Conservatives.
He argued that the vote for Brexit had to be seen as part of an arc of protest created by the banking crisis in 2008, and also criticised the remain campaign, saying the then chancellor, George Osborne, had been foolish to threaten workers with a punishment budget if they voted to leave the EU. He said the Osborne budget was “spectacularly misguided”, and only encouraged those who wanted to give the status quo a kicking. It was a “wilfully abrasive thing to say to those that still feel the scars of 2008”.
He argued: “To say to people: ‘If you don’t do as I say I’m going to whack up your taxes or cut your public services further’ – even I felt when I heard that I’m slightly inclined to vote out – for a millisecond.” He said the remain campaign was “a listless offer” of continuity and “lacked poetry”.
Defending the right of MPs to challenge the Brexit decisions, he said precedent, politics, the absence of a detailed Brexit mandate and the law all required parliament to vote on Brexit. “We live in a representative democracy and we have every right to exercise discretion.”
He added that Brexiters “do not have a leg to stand on” if they refuse parliament a vote, arguing: “They did not deign to spell out before the referendum what hard Brexit meant. Clearly MPs have to abide by the instruction to quit the EU, but I don’t think MPs’ hands are at all tied by the terms of that Brexit. It would be absurd for the MPs to seek to trigger the exit process, formally speaking, without a vote of consent both at the beginning of the process and at the end.”
He said: “The government has a mandate to pull us out of the EU, but it has no mandate at all on how to do that.”
Clegg pointed out that the Conservatives during the coalition government had put pressure on him to allow repeated Commons votes on whether the UK should opt out of EU justice and home affairs (JHA) issues. “If parliament had a right to two votes – to trigger negotiations and at the conclusion on opt-ins on JHA – then sure as hell there is a much bigger right for MPs on taking the UK out of the EU.”
Clegg said UK membership of the European Economic Area, like Norway’s, was the most obvious “second best alternative to full membership”. But he said even that option would have huge problems, including a common external tariff.
He also warned that leave voters might be surprised by the consequences of their vote. “I genuinely think it will come as quite a shock, and of course this won’t happen quickly, this will take years, but it will come as quite a shock to a lot of leave voters that they are now in the hands of an ideology which, in my view, won’t do anything to answer these kind of social and economic insecurities which I believe drove a lot of people to vote Brexit in the first place.
“A lot of people that voted for leave did not vote for this uber-libertarian view where you remove employment protections, reduce corporate taxation to the minimum, which is very much the ideology that drives the small-state Brexiteers. Many were voting due to an anguish about the lack of decent public services and a need for greater protection.”
Clegg also criticised the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, saying he was unrealistic to think he could strike bilateral trade deals at this stage. “He is starting at the wrong end of the telescope. He’s charging round the world saying he wants to strike deals and the reason he is getting pretty short shrift is because they are saying we do not know what your commitments are to the EU or the WTO [World Trade Organisation]. They will clock up a huge amount of air miles but it is a displacement activity since the building blocks for a new approach are not in place.”
This article was written by Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 27th July 2016 15.43 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010