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PM mustn’t press button without a plan and a vote

by Hugo Dixon | 12.10.2016

Theresa May has made half a U-turn, conceding a Commons debate before she triggers Article 50. MPs, who had expressed outrage that the prime minister was trying to undermine parliamentary sovereignty, must now press their advantage. This means forcing the government to spell out its Brexit plan and agree to a vote on it.

The government last night agreed to an opposition motion calling for a “full and transparent debate on the government’s plan for leaving the EU” and for the Commons to be “able properly to scrutinise that plan for leaving the EU before Article 50 is invoked”. It has proposed an amendment saying the process should respect the referendum vote and not undermine its negotiating position.

May has made a significant concession. Her comments at last week’s Conservative Party conference gave the impression that she was hell-bent on a hard, destructive, xenophobic Brexit. This has provoked a backlash. The pound plunged, our European partners hardened their line, liberal Brexiters started having qualms and, most significantly, many MPs rediscovered their voices. There is no majority for a hard, xenophobic Brexit either in parliament or the country.

The government had already backtracked on plans to force companies to publish the number of foreigners working for them. The agreement to a Commons debate is the second major retreat. But it has not gone far enough.

Critically, the government has not yet produced a proper plan. Instead, we’ve had leaks such as the suggestion that the government might continue to pay £5 billion a year to the EU post-Brexit and that hard Brexit would create a black hole in the government’s finances of up to £66 billion a year.

The government now needs to set out what it wants to achieve from Brexit, backed up by proper evidence for its plan. Ideally this should be set out in a White Paper, as David Davis, the Brexit secretary, once advocated. This would answer many if not all of the 170 questions tabled by Labour.

If and when May produces such a plan, MPs should not just debate it. They then need to vote on it – either giving it the thumbs-up or the thumbs-down.

Such an approach would respect the referendum vote – which cannot be interpreted as giving May a blank cheque to pursue whatever Brexit she wants. Nor would it undermine her negotiating position. Securing parliamentary approval for her negotiating position would give her confidence that she had the country behind her in what are likely to be hard talks. Going solo like some Tudor monarch would risk that she comes back with a deal that she can’t sell, leading to chaos.

Having secured half a U-turn, MPs must secure the full volte face.

Hugo Dixon is co-founder of CommonGround as well as editor-in-chief of InFacts. You can sign up as a supporter here.

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