Expert View

Pursuit of Brexit is turning parliamentary world upside down

by David Hannay | 13.02.2019

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

Back in January – yes, it does seem a long time ago as zig follows zag in the government’s Brexit policy – there was a massive amount of righteous indignation amongst Brexiters against the Speaker of the Commons. John Bercow had used his powers to call certain amendments rather than others during the first effort to rule out, in a legally binding form, the UK leaving the EU without a deal at the end of March.

Parliamentary pundits were marshalled to argue that our (admittedly unwritten) constitution was being overturned and that civilisation as we knew it was about to come to an end.

But the real disrupter of British constitutional practice has been the government itself. Take January 15, for example, when the government lost the “meaningful vote” on its Brexit deal by 230 votes. Has any other UK government been defeated in such a way and not either resigned or fundamentally changed its policy? No, because that is what is meant to happen in a parliamentary system of government.

But this government just sailed on towards another “meaningful vote” at an unknown date in the future as if nothing had happened. It is precisely this kind of practice, of not taking no for an answer, of which the EU is accused by ardent Brexiters.

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And then there is the prospect of leaving by default without a deal at the end of March. Both Houses of Parliament have voted to reject that option. Has any government ignored such a united expression of parliamentary opinion in the past? No is the answer again.

The government takes refuge behind a palisade of excuses which are manifestly untrue and presses on towards the cliff edge, arguing that it is not within its power to avoid no deal and hoping that playing chicken in this way will squeeze out a majority for its approach. In truth the government has several alternative options to no deal. For example, it could either shift its red lines; or propose to the EU a postponement of the March deadline; or indicate its intention of giving the electorate the final say on its deal.

And ministers are not just the flouting parliamentary authority. How about the precedent the government has created by going back on the outcome of an arduous and lengthy negotiation, concluded last November, by a prime minister who assured anyone willing to listen that it was the best deal available? Now she is back in Brussels trying to unpick the Irish backstop which she and the rest of the government accepted, not once but twice, in December 2017 and in November 2018. What does that do for the credibility of a government which is about to embark on a whole series of international negotiations both with the EU and others?

This is, frankly, a pretty shameful record, and one which is likely to cost the UK dear in the years ahead. It is no good attempting to justify it with arcane interpretations of parliamentary procedure about what is or what is not legally binding. It is surely time to apply a bit of common sense, and to give priority to the national interest over party solidarity. And that requires a fundamental shift of policy.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

4 Responses to “Pursuit of Brexit is turning parliamentary world upside down”

  • Please let’s have some common sense and now we all know all the facts have a proper morotorium on all aspects positive and negative .this should involve business health and education .No lies no haranguing and then put to the people with good solid information .

  • PMQs is the biggest waste of time. Both May and Corbyn were pathetic today, sparring and trading insults amid a throng of baying idiots. Time fir a complete overhaul of the British systemmif democracy from top to bottom. PR must be on the cards and a modern debating chamber should replace the Palace of Westminster. (Turn it into a museum). The culture of Westminster politics is archaic and stuck in 1688.
    They are arguing stupid points of order and Rome is burning.

  • This is the May Dictatorship and she is the puppeteer of the Nero Parliament. The aim is the salvation of the Conservative Party and she is playing it by ear now. The odds are in her favour, she knows it, and all she has to do is brazen it out and hope for a cave-in before March 29.

  • Another unwinding of an international agreement that will soon figure as a result of Brexit is the possible loss of the UK seat on the UN Security Council as the EU will endeavour to retain its influence on the world stage by advocating a switch of the Security Council seat from the UK to the EU.