In response to the government winning the vote in the House of Commons passing The European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill 2016-17, Labour MP Chuka Umunna posted on Facebook his discust at Andrea Leadsome, Chris Grayling and Boris Johnson voting against an amendment that would have required the government to set aside an additional £350m in extra funding per week for the NHS. Umunna called such a move a “disgrace and a betrayal of the British people”.
I genuinely do understand – at least on one level – why he seemed to respond this way. It does seem, at face value, as though these cheeky Tory MPs have committed precisely the same act of anti-democratic rebellion that some 50-odd Labour members did.
However, I think there are a few differences that are worth pointing out before we hit the share button on Chuka’s click-bait status update.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that no one criticises Labour MPs for standing up for what they believe in. Self-consistency is critical to maintaining trust, integrity and a healthy democracy. It would be more dishonourable for an MP to deny what they believe in.
However, I think it is appropriate to question what it is that they actually believe in. I know that in an age of relativism, we’re not supposed to tell people they’re wrong. But I don’t care for relativism when it comes to truth or morality.
The vast majority of Labour MPs voted to give the British people the choice about the EU in an in/out referrendum. That was their choice. They chose to delegate their responsibility to the people. They didn’t have to. Arguably (if you believe we’re better off inside the EU), they shouldn’t have. However, given the fact that they sanctioned the referendum, it’s fair to criticise them for giving the people the impression that they had the choice, and then taking it away because the outcome was the ‘wrong one’. We cannot criticise the intention and good-will of those rebellious MPs, but their beliefs about democracy are wide-open to scrutiny.
Furthermore, during the referrendum – arguably – the Leave campaign never actually promised that £350m pw would be spent on the NHS. Since they weren’t representing the government it was assumed that they weren’t actually in a position to enact this suggestion. They also never claimed that they would spend the money on the NHS, they said ‘Let’s spend it on the NHS instead’ (a message directed to the government of the day).
Therefore, no original promise = no promise broken.
In addition, in this instance, there was a three-line whip behind the vote (both from Labour and the Tory leadership). In voting this way, Leadsom & Co. were simply obeying their orders. Even if they did make a promise during the referrendum, they’re not necessarily breaking it. They are simply obeying orders from the government. The government has certainly made no commitment to spending £350m pw extra on the NHS.
One thing that striked me about Chuka’s comment was the extent to which it revealed his self-righteous attitude towards the whole ordeal. In criticising Leadosome & Co. he implicitly affirms the wrongdoing of his own party, yet completely fails to apologise for it. Instead he points the finger towards those nasty Tory’s and their comparatively trivial actions – it’s repulsive. Labour rebels have committed a far more serious crime – they voted for the referrendum act, the people had their say and 50 odd MPs then changed their mind. Those Labour MPs are breaking a referrendum promise. At the very most, Leadsom and co are breaking one promise made as part of a much greater campaign about a much greater choice.
Finally – this is the most important point – the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill is not a budget. Even if these Brexiteers did intend to keep their so-called ‘promise’, this is not the place where they should (or could) do that. Increases in spending are decided by the Chancellor and set at the time of the budget. An amendment to a bill of legislation, which itself has a very clear, limited and specific purpose, is not the place to set budgets. The promise was in respect of the re-allocation of funds. Since we don’t have those funds back in our control yet, since we are yet to leave the European Union, it is not appropriate for those funds to be re-allocated until a budget from the Chanceller in late 2019 or beyond.
It’s a bit like me promising to pay you back for borrowing £5, and then not paying you back as soon as I get a £5 note. It’s not that I’m breaking my promise, it’s just that it’s not the right time for the promise to be honoured.
In view of all of this, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if once we have left the EU and have taken back control of that extra £20B in spending, that the government does choose to put a big chunk of that back into the NHS – it so badly needs it!