LONDON – MPs had their first real chance last week to declare where they stand on triggering Britain’s exit from the European Union.
An opposition motion, which called on the government to set out their plans for leaving the EU, also contained a government amendment committing MPs to trigger Article 50 by the end of March next year.
For those MPs who failed to vote in favour, there was an immediate and furious reaction in the press.
“The 89 MPs who show contempt for referendum voters,” ran a Daily Telegraph headline above a list of all those who had voted against.
The paper labelled them “childish vandals” and warned that they would have to “answer” for their decision.
“89 [MPs] shamefully voted against,” the Telegraph’s editorial declared, adding that it was “an act of contempt for the democratic result of the referendum for which they must answer to the electorate.”
They were joined by the Conservative Party press team, who tweeted the names of individual MPs who “won’t respect [the] referendum result.”
The vast majority of those who chose not to back the motion represented constituencies where most voters had backed Remain. However, six MPs voted against the motion, despite representing constituencies which voted Leave.
So had these MPs shown “contempt” for leave voters, as their critics suggested? We spoke to some of them to find out.
“Those who voted against the government amendment did not vote against Brexit or indeed against triggering A50,” Labour MP Angela Smith told Business Insider.
“It was against an unrealistic timetable as far as Parliamentary scrutiny is concerned.”
“We needed to see a commitment to a white paper”
Smith represents Penistone and Stocksbridge, a rural South Yorkshire seat made up of old mining villages and traditional industrial areas. Although a long-standing Labour seat, 62% of voters here backed Leave, according to analysis by Chris Hanretty, of the University of East Anglia.
Smith says she voted against the motion because the government have not yet been clear enough about what Brexit actually means.
The vote in Parliament was not about stopping the will of the people
“We needed to see a commitment to a white paper and a rigorous Parliamentary process to match,” she explains.
“That was not evident either in the amended motion or in the contributions from the government front bench.”
Plaid Cymru’s Jonathan Edwards agrees.
“It may well be that once the Brexit plan is published, I and my Plaid Cymru colleagues will support it, but to commit to supporting a vacuous statement of a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ would be deeply irresponsible,” he said to BI.
Edwards represents Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, a rural seat in South Wales with an ageing population, where an estimated 54% of voters backed Leave. The MP insists that his vote was not an attempt to defy his own voters.
“The vote in Parliament was not about stopping the will of the people,” he says.
“How could it have been when there is a Supreme Court case being heard to determine whether MPs will even get a vote on triggering Article 50 and formally beginning that Brexit process?”
“I am a democrat and respect the referendum result”
He appears sensitive to claims that he and his colleagues are defying democracy.
“I am a democrat and respect the referendum result,” he told BI. “But I am not prepared to give the UK government a blank cheque and free ride to do whatever it wants without any information on how residents of Carmarthenshire and Wales will be affected.”
Labour’s Barry Sheerman is more direct, describing current plans to trigger Article 50 in March as “sheer bloody stupidity.”
“We have to think carefully about this and it stands to reason that we should only go ahead with triggering Article 50 after the upcoming elections in Germany and France.”
He says May’s Brexit timetable will inevitably cause European nations to give the UK a bad deal.
“Those countries are understandably terrified of alienating their own electorates and it strikes me as sheer bloody stupidity to push ahead with this process before those elections have concluded,” he explains.
Sheerman describes his voters in Huddersfield as “pretty much even Stevens in terms of their referendum vote.”
According to Hanretty, the vote split 51% to 49% in favour of Leave there. Sherman believes it is his responsibility to consider the wider interests of his constituency.
It strikes me as sheer bloody stupidity to push ahead with this process before those elections have concluded
“I was elected as MP for Huddersfield to represent people and look after their long-term interests,” he told BI.
“I think it has been brought home by the Autumn Statement that we are heading for real problems with low wages and living standards and a pretty miserable few years for the people I represent.”
“This is a big university town and has industry that would be in serious trouble if we come out now and it is my job to articulate that.”
Some of those who voted against the Article 50 motion last week have been targeted with abuse online. However, Sheerman suggests that his own voters have been largely understanding.
“I’ve had lots of responses from constituents and on social media and I have to say the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive,” he insists.
The vote took place while just across parliamentary square the Supreme Court was in session to hear legal arguments on whether the High Court reached the correct conclusion in last month’s Article 50 case.
The court’s 11 justices must decide whether the High Court was correct to rule that Theresa May must secure parliamentary approval before invoking Article 50 and initiating Britain’s departure from the EU.
If the government’s appeal is unsuccessful, then the prime minister will likely have to get an act of parliament through both the Commons and the Lords before she can trigger Article 50.
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