Tough choices for MPs voting on Brexit bill

Will of the people: Many MPs are at odds with their constituents over the EU referendum.

Britain voted to leave the EU, but the majority of MPs sought to remain. Now the Article 50 bill is going through Parliament. Should MPs vote with their constituents? Or their consciences?

‘The eyes of the nation are on this chamber as we consider this bill,’ said the Brexit secretary, David Davis, yesterday in a busy House of Commons. He was opening the debate on the bill that will begin the process of Britain leaving the EU (European Union).

‘We voted to give the people the chance to determine the future in a referendum,’ continued Davis, who campaigned to leave. ‘Now we must honour our side of the agreement to vote to deliver on the result. We are considering a very simple question: do we trust the people or not?’

The historic bill that will trigger Article 50 is only 140 words long. But MPs debated it until midnight last night, and will continue today, before voting on it at 7pm.

The majority of MPs supported the remain campaign, but if the referendum had been run like a general election, 408 constituencies would have voted to leave, with just 242 voting remain.

That puts many MPs in an awkward position. If they vote for what they personally think is best for the country, they will be ignoring the clear wishes of their constituents.

Most Conservative MPs are supporting the bill because it is backed by Theresa May’s government. Unusually, Labour has also issued a three-line whip, telling its MPs to vote with the government as well, even though only ten out of 228 of their MPs campaigned to leave.

Labour has proposed an amendment that would guarantee Parliament a vote on the final Brexit deal struck with the EU. Other proposed amendments include securing the rights of people from the EU who live in the UK, and putting the final deal to a second referendum.

However, some rebels from both major parties are joining the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats in opposing the bill.

Edmund Burke, the great political philosopher, once said of MPs: ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’ In other words, MPs should use their judgement, rather than seeking to please their constituents all the time.

So if most MPs think that leaving the EU is a bad idea, shouldn’t they vote against triggering Article 50?

People power

Leaving the EU is the will of the people, say some. MPs voted in favour of the referendum on EU membership and now they must accept the result and carry out the wishes of the majority, no matter what their personal feelings are.

Not so fast, say others. Parliament is sovereign, whatever the referendum result. MPs should carefully scrutinise the bill, propose amendments and consider the interests of the country and their constituents, drawing on their knowledge and expertise before making a decision.

You Decide

  1. Should MPs vote according to their consciences, or how their constituents tell them to?
  2. Should Labour, the official opposition, vote with the government to pass the bill?


  1. Pick a law you would want to see passed and, in pairs, debate it as if you were in Parliament.
  2. Imagine you are an MP. Decide how you would vote on Brexit and write a letter to the constituents who disagree with you, explaining your decision.

Some People Say...

“Government and legislation are matters of reason and judgement, and not of inclination.”

Edmund Burke

What do you think?

Q & A

The bill is probably going to pass anyway. What does it matter if some MPs don’t vote for it?
How MPs vote on this bill could have consequences when it comes to the next election. If constituents don’t like how their MP voted, they might decide to elect someone else. Over the whole country, that could affect who forms the next government.
What happens after the bill is passed?
This first vote begins the Parliamentary process which involves approval by the House of Commons and House of Lords, subject to further votes. MPs scrutinise the bill and can try to add or make amendments. When the bill is approved the Queen will give her formal assent, and it becomes an Act of Parliament, ie, law. The government can then invoke Article 50 and begin the negotiations to leave the EU.

Word Watch

Article 50
Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union deals with what happens when a member wants to leave. The country must leave within two years of triggering Article 50.
Late night sessions are less common these days, but 10% of sittings lasted until at least 2am in the 1980s.
This vote is the first hurdle that sends the bill through to the Committee Stage where MPs propose amendments. After that there will be a final vote at the third reading.
General election
In a general election, people vote for their local MP and the party with a majority of MPs forms the government.
Three-line whip
A three-line whip is the strictest instruction to attend and vote with the party. The number of lines comes from the number of times the Chief Whip underlines the vote on the Parliamentary schedule.
Edmund Burke
Burke was an MP in the 18th century and is widely credited as the founder of modern conservatism.

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