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.


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.


Political & Constitutional Reform Committee: Another Early Victim of the Great Liberal Defeat, 2015

The news has just broken that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has been abolished, following meetings between the party whips.

The Committee was established in 2010, mainly in order to scrutinise the work of the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who had responsibility for a host of reforms – so many, in fact, that he infamously suggested we’d get “the biggest shake-up in our democracy since 1832“.

As it turned out, of course, most of these reforms either failed to materialise, or were rejected. The only one that has remained in place that I can think of is the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, and one can envisage a situation where even that is under threat.

This is not the point, though.

The Committee got through a prodigious amount of work between 2010 and 2015. It was arguably one of the most active and conscientious committees in Parliament.

Now it is being abolished, in the face of an obvious need to retain Parliament’s ability to scrutinise matters of political and constitutional reform. Perhaps the whips from the Conservatives and Labour don’t think it’s worth having such a body in place in order to deal with – oh, I don’t know – Scottish devolution, an EU referendum, and constituency boundary changes to name but three.

The argument might run that these issues would be better dealt with by other Committees. There is a Scottish Affairs Committee, for instance, that will be doing work on devo max and full fiscal autonomy. The Foreign Affairs Committee, too, might suggest it is well placed on European issues.

But the reality is that a committee dedicated to thinking about and suggesting alterations to the fine detail of political and constitutional reform – which will inevitably eventuate from these processes, whether or not we see the seismic shifts that are possible were we to leave the EU – is a very sensible idea.

Moreover, I tend to the view that the more bodies available to challenge government policy and suggest improvements, the better.

The reality seems to be that this is yet another early casualty of the Lib Dems’ lack of Parliamentary representation. How many more times will we have to point to a lack of liberalism within the House of Commons over the next decade?

EDIT: The other thing about this is that it is a direct slap in the face for the 477,000 who signed the Electoral Reform Society petition on voting reform, which was only delivered to Downing Street on Monday, supported by the Lib Dems, Greens, UKIP and others.