Tom Freeman Profile picture
Jul 4, 2018 13 tweets 3 min read Twitter logo Read on Twitter
Let’s imagine, hypothetically – just for argument’s sake – that the Leave campaign did break electoral law. Apart from prosecutions and fines, what should happen as a consequence of that? 1/13 (yes, 13, sorry)…
If an MP breaks the law to get elected, the result can be annulled: they lose their seat and the voters get a by-election. But a referendum result isn’t a person, doesn’t hold an elected post, and can’t be held accountable. 2/13
There’s no equivalent law for annulling referendum results – partly because the referendum was, as the #FPBE crowd love to say, “advisory”. It has no legal force, so there’s nothing to annul. It has always been entirely up to MPs whether they implement the result. 3/13
A referendum result may not have legal force, but it does have great moral and political force – it puts huge pressure on (most) MPs to vote to implement the result. Most of them, before the referendum, promised to do so. 4/13
So all a tainting of the result does is weaken its moral and political force. MPs may feel they can no longer trust that it truly represents “the will of the people”. They may think that we should re-run the referendum, or that they should just decide on Brexit themselves. 5/13
MPs may also feel that they should send a message to future political campaigners, to show that you can’t just choose to pay a modest fine in order to rig a referendum. (Or they might think the lawbreaking is no big deal and politics should ignore it. That’s their call.) 6/13
There’s another huge political fact, though: the 2017 election result. Almost all Tory MPs and a big majority of Labour MPs were elected on promises to leave the EU. There is no suggestion that electoral law was broken by these MPs in winning their new, pro-Brexit mandates. 7/13
This means that abandoning their allegiance to the 2016 referendum result would involve breaking a very big manifesto promise to their 2017 voters. 8/13
But those promises and those votes in 2017 were all on the assumption that the referendum result was legit. So if that result is now tainted by breach of electoral law, MPs might take the view that manifesto commitments based on it are, politically, null and void. 9/13
MPs have the right to break their own election promises. It is better – morally, and for the sake of trust in politics – if they keep those promises, but sometimes they will come to think that something they promised is actually a bad idea. 10/13
If they do, they have the right to use their judgement about which is the lesser of two evils: break the promise or press on with the policy they think is bad. 11/13
Voters, in turn, have the right to kick out MPs who break their promises, especially ones so prominently made. They also, of course, have the right to kick out MPs who keep promises that turn out to be unwisely made. 12/13
So, while revelations of electoral malpractice may affect the balance of motivations and the choice of which evil is lesser, the basic situation stays the same: MPs have to decide which course of action they think is best, then voters will accept or punish those decisions. 13/13

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