Senior Conservative MPs have seized on a forgotten Government promise to let Parliament decide the response to any referendum result – insisting it must hold true for Brexit.
Ministers agreed, exactly six years ago, that referendums “cannot be legally binding” – which meant MPs and peers should decide “whether or not to take action” on the verdict given by voters.
The unequivocal statement flies in the face of Theresa May’s repeated insistence that her Government, not Parliament, will decide how to deliver Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
The Prime Minister is locked in a court battle for the right to use the ancient royal prerogative – legal authority derived from the Crown – to trigger the Article 50 withdrawal process, ignoring Parliament.
But, in October 2010, David Cameron’s Government stated exactly the opposite in a little-noticed response to an inquiry by a House of Lords committee.
That inquiry concluded that “because of the sovereignty of Parliament, referendums cannot be legally binding in the UK, and are therefore advisory”.
In response, then-constitutional reform minister Mark Harper stated: “The Government agrees with this recommendation.
“Under the UK’s constitutional arrangements, Parliament must be responsible for deciding whether or not to take action in response to a referendum result.”
Nicky Morgan, the former Education Secretary who has called for a vote on Article 50, told The Independent that the document bolstered the case for that vote to take place.
What experts have said about Brexit
What experts have said about Brexit
1/11 Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond
The Chancellor claims London can still be a world financial hub despite Brexit “One of Britain’s great strengths is the ability to offer and aggregate all of the services the global financial services industry needs” “This has not changed as a result of the EU referendum and I will do everything I can to ensure the City of London retains its position as the world’s leading international financial centre.”
2/11 Yanis Varoufakis
Greece's former finance minister compared the UK relations with the EU bloc with a well-known song by the Eagles: “You can check out any time you like, as the Hotel California song says, but you can't really leave. The proof is Theresa May has not even dared to trigger Article 50. It's like Harrison Ford going into Indiana Jones' castle and the path behind him fragmenting. You can get in, but getting out is not at all clear”
3/11 Michael O’Leary
Ryanair boss says UK will be ‘screwed’ by EU in Brexit trade deals: “I have no faith in the politicians in London going on about how ‘the world will want to trade with us’. The world will want to screw you – that's what happens in trade talks,” he said. “They have no interest in giving the UK a deal on trade”
4/11 Tim Martin
JD Wetherspoon's chairman has said claims that the UK would see serious economic consequences from a Brexit vote were "lurid" and wrong: “We were told it would be Armageddon from the OECD, from the IMF, David Cameron, the chancellor and President Obama who were predicting locusts in the fields and tidal waves in the North Sea"
5/11 Mark Carney
Governor of Bank of England is 'serene' about Bank of England's Brexit stance: “I am absolutely serene about the … judgments made both by the MPC and the FPC”
6/11 Christine Lagarde
IMF chief urges quick Brexit to reduce economic uncertainty: “We want to see clarity sooner rather than later because we think that a lack of clarity feeds uncertainty, which itself undermines investment appetites and decision making”
7/11 Inga Beale
Lloyd’s chief executive says Brexit is a major issue: "Clearly the UK's referendum on its EU membership is a major issue for us to deal with and we are now focusing our attention on having in place the plans that will ensure Lloyd's continues trading across Europe”
8/11 Colm Kelleher
President of US bank Morgan Stanley says City of London ‘will suffer’ as result of the EU referendum: “I do believe, and I said prior to the referendum, that the City of London will suffer as result of Brexit. The issue is how much”
9/11 Richard Branson
Virgin founder believes we've lost a THIRD of our value because of Brexit and cancelled a deal worth 3,000 jobs: We're not any worse than anybody else, but I suspect we've lost a third of our value which is dreadful for people in the workplace.' He continued: "We were about to do a very big deal, we cancelled that deal, that would have involved 3,000 jobs, and that’s happening all over the country"
10/11 Barack Obama
US President believes Britain was wrong to vote to leave the EU: "It is absolutely true that I believed pre-Brexit vote and continue to believe post-Brexit vote that the world benefited enormously from the United Kingdom's participation in the EU. We are fully supportive of a process that is as little disruptive as possible so that people around the world can continue to benefit from economic growth"
11/11 Kristin Forbes
American economist and an external member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England argues that the economy had been “less stormy than many expected” following the shock referendum result: “For now…the economy is experiencing some chop, but no tsunami. The adverse winds could quickly pick up – and merit a stronger policy response. But recently they have shifted to a more favourable direction”
She said: “The referendum was advisory and Parliament has to be responsible for deciding whether or not to take action in response to that result.
“The 2010 Government made that important commitment and – although the complexion of the Government has changed since - the current Prime Minister was a very important part of that Government.”
Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General, said: “It is the case that all referendums are advisory – that’s absolutely, abundantly clear.
“The Government doesn’t have a blank cheque on what model we pursue as we come out of the EU, or our future relationship with the European Union, because the electorate made no pronouncement on that whatsoever.”
And Ken Clarke, the veteran former Tory Cabinet minister, said: “Constitutionally, this document must be correct, because referendums never played a part in British politics before Harold Wilson called his European referendum.
“And it’s sensible, because a referendum on a big, broad question tells us nothing about the dozens of issues that have to be tackled by the Government in response to it.”
MPs worried about a hard Brexit have stressed their aim is not to derail Brexit, but to ensure proper Parliamentary involvement in the decisions that will follow.
In 2010, the report by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution also stated, on referendum results: “It would be difficult for Parliament to ignore a decisive expression of public opinion.”
Asked why the Government had changed its position since 2010, a spokesman for the Prime Minister, said: “Parliament voted by a majority of six to one to hold the referendum – and it is a manifesto commitment of the Conservative Party to deliver on its outcome.
“Triggering Article 50 is therefore something for the Government to deliver.”
Under pressure from MPs last week, Ms May said they had numerous opportunities to “discuss, debate, question” her strategy, insisting: “Parliament's going to have every opportunity to debate this issue.”Reuse content