Brexit reveals the broken relationship between government and parliament

Much wringing of hands over the government’s so-called ‘concession’ yesterday. David Davis promised a vote on the final Brexit deal – a ‘take it or leave it’ vote, as reported by the BBC here.

The way this is portrayed by the media (including the BBC in that article) is that this is some sort of climb down by the government. In fact it’s nothing of the sort.

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As it’s been apparent since the referendum result became clear, any vote on a deal must include the possibility of staying in the EU, otherwise it is meaningless. It’s very strange that the government hasn’t recognised this, as by giving Parliament that power they would both be honouring the terms on which Leave won the referendum (“take back control” – sovereignty, remember?) and giving themselves more bargaining power by holding themselves accountable.

In coalition government, the best thing rank and file Lib Dem members could do was to up the ante on policy-making to force the parliamentary party to take more radical starting positions when negotiating with the Tories. This was quite basic stuff; when negotiating with a more powerful party, you have to hold your ground as best you can, not concede it from the outset. (I say it is basic, but it was also apparently beyond the grasp of some of our people.)

In the same way, the UK government would have been better off using Parliament’s bias to Remain in its favour. They would have been justified in doing so because the Leave side claimed it wanted to give Parliament more power. And they would have given themselves room to make concessions that are healthy for the UK economy, in line with the EU’s requirements, and supported by Parliament. In short, they would have got a better deal that reflected the result of the referendum more accurately.

It blows my mind that the same Theresa May who made what now looks like a remarkably decent pro-Remain speech (for a Tory) back in April 2016 has frittered away her political capital and her chance to ‘stand tall and lead’, in her own words, by manufacturing a situation in which her ministers can simply ignore the country’s elected representatives.

We can’t really blame the government though. It asked for unfettered power to negotiate the terms of Brexit by challenging Parliament over Article 50. And Parliament, to its everlasting shame, blinked. In voting through the government’s bill completely unamended, it enabled Theresa May to invoke Article 50 without binding her in any way to any policy that would have ameliorated the total uncertainty of the current situation.

Once Article 50 was triggered, the legal process ceased to be a UK-based one, and becomes European. David Allen Green’s excellent thread, starting with this, summates:

If you didn’t read David’s thread, here’s the gist: you can forget all you read or hear in the press about Parliament having a ‘final say’ on Brexit. The legal position is that the UK will leave the EU on March 29, 2019, regardless of any further legislation being passed in the House of Commons. Only the government can directly intervene to stop the Article 50 process, and even then, it would be dependent on European institutions to allow or confirm the revocation.

What does all this tell us? It shows us the extent to which government and Parliament are failing to work together in the interests of the country. The relationship between executive and legislature ought always to be adversarial rather than cosy; the way that our government is built, derived as it is from Parliament, makes this immediately difficult.

But more importantly, it shows us just how poorly our elected representatives understand their role in our democracy. They voted enthusiastically for an advisory referendum that meant they retained the power of decision-making on Brexit. They squandered that power. Now, it appears, they are demanding that power be restored, having voted enthusiastically for a legal process that took it out of their hands.

It’s almost as if we need to reform the way we choose them.

The Party and the Government that Confounded Expectations

Today marked the end of what was surely one of the most surprising Parliaments in modern British history. If we were to rewind the clock five years to the start of the short campaign in 2010, you would find few – if any – political watchers willing to agree that there would be a formal coalition government. I suggest you would find absolutely none at all who would be willing to concede it might last a full five years.

Reading back over the commentary of a breathless and rather stunned media, reacting to the initial coalition agreement and that infamous Dave ‘n’ Nick double act in the Downing Street rose garden, there was immense scepticism even after the deal was struck that it would go even half the distance. From all sides of the political divide, the pessimistic predictions rolled in.

What’s striking, too, is that they carried on coming. Even two years later, with a huge amount of policy already implemented – some of it highly radical and some of it politically damaging (academies, tuition fees, the AV referendum) – the belief that there would be an unnatural end was still widespread. This, despite the fact that the government had also already put in place the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which would act as a monumental barrier to any precipitate uncoupling. Yet in August 2012, less than a fifth of voters believed that the coalition would continue to 2015, according to an ICM poll; even such a celebrated political columnist as Peter Oborne had predicted portentously in March of that year that this “fine” government would not see out 2013.

Yet here we are. March 30th, 2015, and the coalition has completed its work. For my party, the Liberal Democrats, it has been a bruising, painful and largely thankless challenge. Contrary to much lazy opinion, there was little triumphalism as the party collectively took that decision; there was a shared knowledge that it would be tough – perhaps critically so – and that by entering government there was every prospect that the smaller party would lose its identity.

Remarkably, that hasn’t happened. Although the Lib Dems are likely to be severely denuded on May 7th – losing perhaps more than half our seats – the party’s identity remains intact. To me, as someone who resigned his membership in 2012, only to rejoin in 2014, this is highly impressive. What is more, the credit is shared across a wide spectrum of party figures, both inside and outside government. In government there have been important victories for Ministers such as Steve Webb (pensions), Jo Swinson (expanded employment rights such as parental leave), Vince Cable (expansion of apprenticeships and, yes, a tuition fees system that is fairer than the last one), Lynne Featherstone (SSM and FGM), Norman Lamb (mental health), Norman Baker (drugs policy review), and more. Nick Clegg was personally responsible for the constitutional reform agenda – which didn’t go so well – but can also take personal credit for some of the big manifesto-based wins, such as the pupil premium. Danny Alexander can be proud of his involvement in achieving a larger income tax cut for basic rate taxpayers than even the Lib Dems themselves had planned in 2010. Meanwhile, outside government there have been key MPs and members fighting to maintain the party’s independent spirit and identity in the face of constant attacks.

Lib Dems can be proud of what their party has achieved over the past five years. It hasn’t been perfect by any means. But my criteria for being an active member of a political party are threefold:

  1. I want a party that works in and for the national interest – not primarily its own, or those of a select group rather than society as a whole.
  2. I want a party that broadly embodies my own views on a diverse range of issues – principally the economy, civil liberties, the environment, and the place of the UK in the world. (That’s by no means all of them.)
  3. I want a party that is willing to work with others in good faith, even if the process is painful. Because that’s how the best decisions tend to get made.

By all three measures the Lib Dems remain the party for me, and I am more confident of that than I was in 2010. As some more enlightened commentators are belatedly pointing out, they deserve some credit from voters for their troubles. They, and by extension, the government they have been a vital part of, have confounded expectations