Sir John: Let MPs vote on Brexit with their conscience

Former prime ministers Sir John Major (left) and Tony Blair walk across the Peace Bridge in Londonderry ahead of a Remain campaign event at the University of Ulster in Londonderry.

Former prime ministers Sir John Major (left) and Tony Blair walk across the Peace Bridge in Londonderry ahead of a Remain campaign event at the University of Ulster in Londonderry.

PA Archive/PA Images

Sir John Major has called for MPs to be given a free vote on the way forward on Brexit to break the deadlock in parliament and to truly represent their constituents.

The former prime minister said that following the crushing defeat in the Commons it was clear that Theresa May’s deal was dead.

He urged her to stage a series of “indicative” votes to enable her to establish which, if any, of the alternative proposals could command a majority.

“The prime minister argued valiantly for her deal. She fought for it but the House of Commons killed it and killed it comprehensively,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

“The prime minister still needs a deal. If she can’t deliver one that Parliament accepts, then she needs to become a facilitator, a mediator, to find out what Parliament will accept.”

Sir John, whose premiership was riven by divisions over Europe, said that ideally all the party leaders would give their MPs a free vote to allow an “honest representation” of opinion in the House.

“It is the only way to get an absolutely honest answer from Members of Parliament and if it is a free vote it removes the danger of resignations from Government or the opposition frontbench because they disagree with their leader’s policy,” he said.

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“If there is a whip, many Members of Parliament would follow the whip out of loyalty to their party or their leader rather than loyalty to their conscience or their constituents.

“This is such a unique issue I think it would be an act of statesmanship by the party leaders to say ‘Because of the very strong opinions on either side, we are going to lift the party whips so Parliament and the country can get a genuine view of what it is Members of Parliament most think would be best for our country or, perhaps, least bad for our country’.

“It is a unique way of doing it but I think it is justified.”

But Tory Brexit supporter Suella Braverman dismissed the former prime minister’s “Remainer elite” views, saying: “Thank you Sir John, but no thanks.”

Braverman, a former chairwoman of the pro-Leave European Research Group of Tory MPs who resigned as a Brexit minister over May’s Withdrawal Agreement, called for the Irish backstop to be scrapped.

She said some of the options being put forward, like a customs union, allowing continued free movement of people or holding a second referendum, would be “clear breaches” of promises the PM had made and would ignore the will of the people.

She said they would also have “severe consequences” for the Tory party, but she stopped short of saying she would resign the party whip in protest.

Tory MP Anna Soubry in turn reacted with “despair” to Braverman’s comments, accusing her of being “rude and living in a Brexit fantasy land”. She praised Sir John Major’s comments.

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