In spite of the referendum, Brexit or not is still the responsibility of Parliament. Parliament does not abdicate. Its charge is to look after the wellbeing of the population and country, and it is not possible for Parliament to walk away from that responsibility, nor in its nature to do so.
That is clear enough constitutionally. The referendum was advisory. Parliament could have decided to make the referendum binding but deliberately did not. It retained in law the authority to make the final decision and is not constitutionally bound by the referendum.
It is also clear politically. As we have moved on from the referendum, circumstances have changed and we have learned more about the meaning and consequences of Brexit. Brexit on the terms suggested in the referendum campaign is not deliverable. It is Parliament’s job to decide on the impact of how things are working out and what we are learning.
Imagine you are an MP today. You look into the future. You see, from one side, coming towards you an avalanche of necessary public investments: in infrastructure, in defence, in housing, in education, in social care, in the NHS. And you see, on the other side, low growth, low investment, lagging productivity, skill shortage. That adds up to an economy that cannot generate enough public revenue for necessary maintenance of society. You cannot avoid the question of whether it is compatible with your responsibility to let the country cut itself off from its most important community of trade and economic partnership.
You look to the British national landscape. In Scotland, Brexit will give the nationalists the arguments they need to push through independence. The Union will break up. In Ireland, a new border, more or less hard, will cut through the island and disrupt the peaceful coexistence that has been achieved. The worst scenarios may or may not materialise, but you cannot avoid the responsibility for exposing the Union to high risk. You turned you back on that responsibility in sanctioning the referendum. You cannot do it again.
You look to your own institution, to Parliament. You there see no settlement and no coming together around any shared strategy for implementing the referendum. Parliament has asserted its authority and to some degree taken charge, and pulled towards Brexit moderation. It has refused the government a free hand. The government’s original hard Brexit strategy has been killed. The principles of payment and a transition period have been conceded. You have learned that Brexit is not a simple matter of cancelling a club membership and you are trying to sort out in your mind what it really means.
Parliament’s confusion mirrors the population’s confusion. There is no “will of the people” out there. There is division, as reflected in the snap election. The division in the population carries through into Parliament and the Cabinet, and into the relationship between Parliament and government. Parliament is refusing the government a mandate of clarity and the government can do no more in the negotiations than muddle through without initiative, determination or direction. The risk is high that there will be no deal. Most MPs sit on the fence. They believe it is in Britain’s interest to be inside the European Union and they believe they cannot go against the majority in the referendum. That dilemma remains unresolved.
Politics in Parliament are even more tenuous than they look. Not only is the government without platform or support, both major parties have leaderships that in the European question are at odds with the majorities in their respective parliamentary parties. Leavers do not trust Remainers, Remainers do not trust Leavers. Backbenchers do not trust the front benches, and vice versa. The government does not trust Parliament, Parliament does not trust the government. The parliamentary truce is phony and not durable.
The talk of the town in Parliament that reaches the public is “how Brexit?” The talk of the town in Parliament that, for now, does not reach the public, is how Parliament can extricate itself from the mistake it itself made in calling the referendum.
MPs fear the uproar it would create if they exercised their constitutional authority to override the referendum. However, they also recognise themselves to be caught up in a dilemma from which there is no happy outcome. The choice they see in front of them is between uproar now or long term damage to the country. What may look like a mess, is Parliament’s lumbering, convoluted, step-by-step manner of resolving its terrible dilemma.