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6 questions for aspiring prime ministers

by Hugo Dixon | 28.06.2016

The next Tory leader’s top task will be to manage the fallout from last week’s referendum. Conservative MPs must grill candidates for the job about their plan for doing this – before the final two candidates are put to the party’s membership.

Here are six questions all aspiring prime ministers must answer.

1. Will you secure Parliament’s approval before triggering Article 50?

It is probably illegal for a prime minister to start formal divorce proceedings by invoking Article 50 of the EU Treaty without first getting MPs’ authority. It would also flout the parliamentary sovereignty that Brexiteers claim to hold dear.

Of course, the people have just voted to leave the EU and their wishes must be respected unless there is strong evidence that they have changed their minds. But the referendum did not spell out in any detail how the divorce process should proceed. MPs should be consulted before any irrevocable decision is taken.

2. Will you set out an exit plan before seeking approval to trigger Article 50?

Given the referendum result, MPs should not stop a prime minister triggering Article 50 – provided he or she has a proper plan. But leaving the EU will disrupt our economy as well as political relations with our nearest allies. It would be madness to embark on this massive undertaking without a plan. It may be necessary to explore various options with our EU partners before settling on a final position. But at every stage, MPs should be consulted.

3. Is ending free movement for EU citizens a red line?

During the referendum, Vote Leave made clear it would end the automatic right for EU citizens to come to the UK and institute an Australian-style points system. But since the vote, Boris Johnson has been more equivocal. Is this a red line? If so, we will lose full access to the EU’s market. If not, we may be able to retain good access and the hit to our economy will be less severe.

4. Do you want to break the EU up?

Brexiteers, including Michael Gove, have said they wish to “liberate” the whole EU not just leave it. If our future prime minister took such a line, it would get divorce talks off to the bloodiest of starts.

5. Will you stick by our treaty obligations?

Vote Leave said it would pass emergency laws to limit the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction in the UK. This would probably flout our treaty obligations. Ditto if we stopped paying into the EU budget before we actually quit. Such moves would ensure an acrimonious separation.

6. Will you stick by the government’s fiscal rules?

The markets are already tumbling and Britain’s credit rating has been cut. The uncertainty caused by last week’s Leave vote will create a hole in the government’s finances. Another round of austerity wouldn’t be popular, but neglecting the budget deficit would further frighten investors.

Candidates who cannot give satisfactory answers to these questions are not fit for the job.

8 Responses to “6 questions for aspiring prime ministers”

  • Given that the exit campaign was evidently based on false claims – about funding the NHS, about curbing immigration, about being outside of the single market and so on, and based on these falsehoods people voted, can you explain why MPs are not within their rights to withhold their support for triggering article 50 until a second referendum is held to confirm what the majority of British people really want? Every important promise by the leave campaign leadership has now been backtracked from – in just a matter of days! The psychological contract has been broken. This is not democracy; there is no mandate from the British public to implement this. Even if it were legally binding, although perhaps more difficult, I would argue a case for calling foul under the circumstances. But it isn’t, it is ‘advisory’ and therefore presumably simpler to deal with. And the leave campaign has advised it cannot deliver (and never could) what it asked people to base their leave vote on. I would argue it is the duty of our MPs to hold the leave campaign to account, to call the vote unsafe under the circumstances and ask for another referendum. We cannot allow a victory for duplicity over democracy because if there are long-term consequences (as it appears there will be) and people suffer ongoing hardships as a result, there will be no real healing of our divided nation. I for one am not in favour of sweeping this issue under the carpet – better out, better dealt with.

  • Lord Lawson of Blaby, on 27.06.16, spoke in the House of Lords at Hansard col 1391:
    “My Lords, as one of the minority in your Lordships’ House who warmly welcomes the decision that the people made in the referendum, I also warmly welcome the statesmanlike Statement of the Prime Minister today, which my noble friend repeated. May I suggest, too, that the campaign is over and that we are now in a new phase, and that it would be no bad thing if the campaigning organisations on both sides should shut up shop?”

    I do not warmly welcome the result but I agree that, until business resumes on 02.09.16, we are in a new phase in which nothing useful can be done by the campaign groups formed before the vote was held.

    • I disagree completely. We don’t have a PM. But we have a parliament. And that parliament’s most important role right now is to analyse and consider the advisory referendum and vote on whether the result, which would bring about an enormous constitutional change, should be accepted with all its consequences. Why should this be delayed? Only after parliament has spoken in favour of the result, does the government have the right to go ahead with Brexit and invoke article 50.

  • Au contraire. We need ‘experts’ to keep tabs on how Outer candidates for the leadership of this country will change their tune in the coming weeks and months. Outers also need to be held to account for developments in the economy.

  • Re3. Is ending free movement for EU citizens a red line?
    You say that “Vote Leave promised to end the automatic right for EU citizens to come to the UK and institute an Australian-style points system. But since the vote, Boris Johnson has been more equivocal. Is this a red line? If so, we will lose full access to the EU’s market. If not, we may be able to retain good access and the hit to our economy will be less severe.”
    This summary of the downside is seriously imcomplete. Inevitably, the EU will reciprocate. The biggest loss of practical liberty will thus be felt by British citizens who will lose their automatic, legally protected rights to travel, work, live and study throughout the EU, – rights that people, especially the young, now take for granted.

  • So what about this most important question :
    7. Have you ever lied to the British public before?

    I am astonished that integrity does not feature among the key required attributes of a British politician, or even prime minister. It’s absolutely fine for politicians to lie their way to the top and throw the country down the drain in doing so. People are a little shocked when a lie is thrown in their face, but then they quickly move on. Rock bottom standards are acceptable… shocking !

  • We should be campaigning hard for a second referendum now so that we know what the British public genuinely want. The key promises the leave campaign asked people to base their decision on have all been backtracked from within days of the vote – £350m per month extra to the NHS, significant curbs on immigration, quitting the single market; the experts on the economy have been proved right (as we knew they would) not wrong as unqualified brexiteers leaders recklessly claimed. Time to hold people to account.

  • A further question I would like to see them asked is the following.

    7. Do you guarantee that the EU direct spending in this country, on science, agriculture, regional development etc., will either be preserved in any deal we strike or replaced by government spending? If not (and it was after all one of your key campaign arguments that you would now be able to control how that money would be spent), then where will you allow the cuts to fall?