MPs’ cunning plan for a committee more Baldrick than Lenin

by Nick Kent | 15.01.2019

Three Conservative MPs are proposing a Commons committee should take control if the government can’t come up with a new Brexit plan. The MPs are right to advocate cross-party cooperation but wrong to believe that a committee of MPs can get us out of the current impasse.

Three respected backbench MPs, Oliver Letwin, Nick Boles and Nicky Morgan, have been discussing an alternative way for the Commons to reach agreement on Brexit. Although they have repeatedly delayed publishing their plan in detail, the outline of their proposal is clear enough.  

If the prime minister’s plan (which they support) is defeated tonight they want to set a deadline of three weeks for the government to come up with its own alternative. If it fails to do so, the MP’s propose that responsibility for steering Brexit should be handed to the cross-party Liaison Committee, a group of senior MPs who question the prime minister at special sessions.  

Once the Liaison Committee came up with a plan for Brexit, government business would be set aside on the floor of the Commons for a day and the proposal voted on.

This cunning plan is that it is more Baldrick than Lenin.

First, there is the problem of credibility.  Announcing to the world that you have come up with an amazing solution to a national political crisis – you are going to refer the problem to a committee – is unlikely to appeal to either voters or the financial markets. Committees are good at coming up in a slow, deliberate way with long-term policy proposals. They are not an ideal forum for resolving an urgent crisis which requires clear leadership.  

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Second, what will the EU think of this bold new plan? Is it going to be willing to give the UK an extension to Article 50 (it requires unanimous agreement amongst the EU27) so that a committee of the House of Commons can try to find a solution that the government has failed to find in over two years?  

Third, who will conduct the negotiations with the EU? Will the estimable Clerk of the House, David Natzler, throw off his parliamentary robes and became the lead negotiator? Or will the long-suffering Olly Robbins now answer to a committee and not the prime minister?

Fourth, what would happen if the Liaison Committee’s proposal was rejected? Given the current impasse in the Commons, it is perfectly possible that any compromise will be rejected by MPs. The MPs’ answer – to ask the EU for more time or unilaterally revoke Article 50 – is full of problems.

Fifth, the three MPs behind this scheme are all advocates of the so called “Norway plus” plan.  This proposal looks like a mechanism to get Parliament to back a plan that would involve even more rule-taking than the prime minister’s.

Finally, there is the small problem that the MP’s announced their plan without having discussed it with the chair of the Liaison Committee or its other members, many of whom are less than enthusiastic about the idea.  

The MPs are right that when May’s bad deal is defeated, Parliament must assert itself. That will require the opposition front bench to show leadership, not least because it will be Labour’s willingness (or not) to work with MPs from other parties that will determine whether the Commons can agree on a new approach, which the government will then have to implement. You can’t replace the government by a committee.

Edited by Hugo Dixon