Brexit: MPs should be free to reject referendum result due to lack of clear plans, says top lawyer

'That's how we abolished the death penalty,' says Geoffrey Robertson QC

Katie Forster
Thursday 29 September 2016 17:09
Theresa May's first cabinet meeting as Prime Minister
Theresa May's first cabinet meeting as Prime Minister

MPs should “vote with their conscience” in parliament on new laws relating to Brexit “irrespective of the views of their constituents”, a top lawyer has said.

Geoffrey Robertson QC told The Independent the lack of a clear plan from Theresa May’s government meant the Brexit debate was far from finished.

The founder of the Doughty Street Chambers said the UK cannot leave the European Union until the 1972 European Communities Act is repealed, which requires a vote in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

And the longer Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and Brexit Secretary David Davis – nicknamed the ‘three Brexiteers’ – stall over setting out their intentions, the more likely these votes are to be anti-Brexit, or even call for a second referendum, he said.

“The failure of the three Brexiteers to produce anything like a satisfactory solution makes you think that if the [parliamentary] vote were taken now, there would be a decision to remain or a decision to have another plebiscite,” said Mr Robertson.

“MPs are bound to follow their conscience and to vote for what they understand to be the public good, irrespective of the views of their constituents.”

“I would encourage MPs to vote with their conscience; it's their duty,” said the lawyer. “That's how we abolished the death penalty.”

Mr Robertson’s comments come as former Chancellor Ken Clarke called the EU referendum a “bizarre protest vote” and said Theresa May does not have “the first idea” what to do next about Brexit.

Geoffrey Robertson QC says the UK parliament must vote to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act before the country can leave the European Union

The Conservative politician and Remain campaigner told the New Statesman he would vote against the referendum result in parliament.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he said.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they're going to do next on the Brexit front.”

Nicky Morgan, the former Education Secretary, has warned Theresa May she is allowing others to set the terms of Brexit and said the Prime Minister must be clearer on what she wants from any deal.

Ms Morgan said that instead of leaving it to cabinet Brexiteers, Ms May should herself lead policy on the European Union and set out a broad plan as early as next week.

“There is a danger. At the moment, there has been a lack of a plan from our Government about the negotiating, the process, what’s going to happen, what we’re going to ask for,” she told the BBC.

“The longer that gap is left, the more likely it is that, as we are beginning to see, people are taking up positions, whether it’s a hard Brexit, a soft Brexit."

Theresa May tells UN the UK will not turn inwards after Brexit vote

Ms Morgan added: “There is a danger that we will start finding ourselves, the Government will find itself, in a position where other people are setting the terms of the debate.”

Yesterday, a senior judge ordered the Government to reveal its 'secret' legal arguments about how parliament does not have to be consulted on when to trigger Article 50.

High Court Judge Mr Justice Cranston ruled that prior to a hearing of a case from the crowd funded initiative People’s Challenge on 13 October, the Government must publish its previously undisclosed legal arguments about why Article 50 can be triggered without parliamentary assent.

As a majority of MPs backed Remain, some anti-Brexit campaigners believe their vote could enable them to stall or entirely cancel Brexit.

The decision has been heralded as the first major victory in a series of legal challenges trying to block the result of the EU referendum from taking place.

Brexit negotiations could cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds due to the need to hire more than 500 extra civil servants, and through valuable time wasted by “a lack of clarity about roles and responsibility of the new departments,” according to a report by the Institute for Government.

The report said there is a “gaping void in the government negotiating strategy” and warned that “in the absence of a clear plan, Kremlinology and off the cuff remarks are filling the void”.

“Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time," Mr Clarke told the New Statesman.

"She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting parliament and public," he said.

“Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

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