The Prime Minister’s bid to call a snap General Election just before Christmas will not sort out Brexit as he claims and the way he is going about it is bad for democracy.
Why do I say that?
Last week Boris Johnson’s Government won a vote in Parliament to give his Withdrawal Agreement Bill a Second Reading. In other words it was a vote to agree the Bill in principle to allow it to continue its passage through Parliament, including scrutiny of the detail. I think it is a bad Bill and I voted against the Second Reading but I was in the losing side. That means I have to accept that the Bill should now proceed for further consideration by Parliament.
The only person that is stopping that now happening is the Prime Minister himself. He started off trying to insist that Parliament should have no more than a few days to consider his Bill in detail. When Parliament said no to his timetable, the Prime Minister could have asked Parliament to agree a different one. Scrutiny of the Bill does not need to take months but – if it is going to be done properly – it cannot simply take days.
But Boris Johnson has proposed no such revised timetable to Parliament. Instead, in what appears to be a fit of petulance, he is now insisting that, rather than bring his own Bill back, he wants a General Election to take place just before Christmas.
Whether they voted to Leave or Remain in 2016, everybody I speak to wants Brexit sorted one way or another. The trouble is that a General Election does not achieve that. A General Election should be about people electing the individual candidates they want to represent them in Parliament and choosing between different parties’ alternative programmes for Government. It should not be about a single issue – even one as important to the future of our country as our future relationship with the EU. An election should not be used as a kind of surrogate referendum in the way Boris Johnson is attempting, particularly when there is no consensus in the country about what a vote one way or another in such an election would actually endorse or reject as far as Brexit is concerned. Remember too that an election now could easily end up with another hung parliament and leave the impasse over Brexit in a worse place than it is now.
There are also good reasons why elections hardly ever take place in December. A winter election during cold weather is likely to depress turnout by older people and many with disabilities. Not only that but dark nights are not conducive to parties being able to engage with voters in the way that is important to democracy in the run up to elections. The date on which Boris Johnson is insisting – 12th December – also has real problems of its own. Coming after most universities and colleges will have broken up for Christmas, the ability of many students to vote is likely to be hampered. Boris Johnson might think that is an advantage to him in the light of his unpopularity amongst young people but it is not good for democracy.
So, putting all that together, I believe we should sort out Brexit by sorting out Brexit, by timetabling the Withdrawal Agreement Bill for debate, not by trying to have a snap election in December instead. Of course, I would like to see that Bill amended during its passage through Parliament. The Prime Minister’s current Bill still leaves a No Deal Brexit as a possibility down the line. Because of the damage that would do to jobs and livelihoods in this country, I want to see No Deal ruled out. There is little doubt that the threat that the Bill poses for stability in Northern Ireland needs rethinking too. I am also one of those who would like to make the Bill’s passage into law conditional on the terms of the Brexit deal being endorsed in a confirmatory referendum. The people, not politicians, should have the final say. Parliament should have the opportunity to vote on amendments like these. Without amendment, I cannot see my supporting the Bill when the concluding Parliamentary vote on it takes place. But if people like me again lose in these votes, so be it. Either way a decision will be made – and much more quickly than if everything is now put on hold for a six week election campaign.
But it is actually worse than this. Boris Johnson is not just demanding an election on 12th December. He is even trying to change the law governing when elections can be held to allow him to do so. And, guess what, he is again trying to allow little or no time to discuss his new election law. As I write this, most MPs have not even been able to see the text of the new law he wants to bring in, let alone consider it. And yet the Prime Minister is demanding that the whole thing should be done and dusted by the Commons in just a few hours today.
Boris Johnson came into Government saying his priority was to “Get Brexit done.” By refusing to allow his Withdrawal Agreement Bill to proceed to its next stages of consideration by Parliament, he is demonstrating that in reality his priorities are elsewhere. To him it’s all about getting his way. This is not grown-up government and the British people have a right to expect better from a Prime Minister.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to see Boris Johnson out of Downing Street. He is a dreadful Prime Minister whose word cannot be trusted. After the damage that ten years of Conservative-led government has done to our country, I also want to give the British people the chance to elect a new government that works for the many, not the privileged few. So, yes, I want to see a General Election. I will listen to what is said today but, to give everybody the maximum opportunity to vote in a General Election, as things stand I think the best time for it to take place is likely to be early Spring. The priority before then is to get the impasse over Brexit resolved – one way or another.