Parliament has been simultaneously met with both stinging vitriol and praise for voting in favour of an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill that will give MPs a vote on the final Brexit deal.
A debate which saw the government defeated for the first time on the bill saw an engaging and thoughtful discussion amongst MPs that raised a number of questions, like: where should decisions making lie?; what does a ‘meaningful’ vote look like?; and what should the balance of power be the between Parliament and government?
A big loss for the government: how it happened
Wednesday 20th December 2017 marked day 7 of Committee Stage for the Withdrawal Bill, a landmark piece of Brexit legislation. MPs debated the highly controversial Clause 9, which proposes handing government ministers sweeping delegated legislation and Henry VII powers.
Former Attorney General and leading Conservative ‘scrutineer’ Dominic Grieve had tabled an amendment to give Parliament a binding vote on the final deal.
Earlier in the day Brexit Secretary David Davis had announced something of a concession in a bid to neutralise the rebels and avoid a government defeat. Davis had said Parliament would be given a vote in the form of a ‘resolution’.
The problem with the government’s so-called ‘concession’ was that firstly, a resolution is not binding. They have no constitutional or legal status so the government could ignore it. As Yvette Cooper MP pointed out during the debate, the government has shown to date they have no regard for implementing resolutions. Secondly, this resolution would only have come after the treaty was ratified, making Parliament’s vote a mere rubber-stamp.
Explaining the government’s loss
While many nuanced arguments were put forward in support of amendment 7, the debate ultimately came down to fairly simply question - where should decision-making power lie: with the executive, or Parliament? As Cooper put it, the amendment was a bid to “not hand over such unprecedented powers to the Executive blindfold, without our knowing what the withdrawal agreement will be.”
Crucially, this amendment received cross-party support, as well as support from both staunch Leave and Remain supporters. Long-time Eurosceptic and Leave supporter Dennis Skinner joined the likes of pro-Remain Conservative Anna Soubry in the voting chamber.
Former Conservative Minister George Freeman MP professed to have been described by Michael Gove as “a model convert to the cause”. He told the House that his constituents had “voted to bring powers back to Parliament” and “want Parliament to be given the powers to scrutinise legislation.” He called the referendum a chance for the British people to take the “great opportunity to restore their precious but damaged democracy.” Freeman said he was rebelling because “I am a democrat first and foremost.”
Why Parliament getting a vote matters
A central question that emerged from the debate yesterday was about how and where decisions should be made, and who gets to the make them. Does ‘taking back control’ mean that the executive should be given the power to make unilateral decisions about the future of the UK, without consultation? Or should these decisions ultimately be made and scrutinised by elected representatives in Parliament?
Parliament is meant to safeguard against overreach of the government - and that’s what they voted for by endorsing amendment 7. If you think Parliament shouldn’t have a say on the deal, then the unfortunate consequence of this is that unparalleled power will be handed to a small number of largely unaccountable ministers, to make decisions about your future.
In a representative democracy, Parliament is elected on behalf of the people. As Freeman put it: “the sovereignty of the British people required a sovereign Parliament that they could dismiss and they could influence.” He said that “one of the worst aspects of the problem we are all trying to solve is Parliament passing legislation without scrutinising it."
The fact remains that under the UK’s existing constitutional arrangements, Parliament is sovereign, and that’s what motivated many people to vote Leave - to return sovereignty from Brussels to the UK Parliament.
It’s not over until the bill becomes an Act
There’s so much more that needs to be done. Unfortunately MPs weren’t convinced at this stage to remove the astonishingly broad powers for ministers to rewrite laws. Rules that have governed life in the UK for decades - from environmental protections to workers' rights, could soon be scrapped with the flick of a pen - making MPs spectators in huge swathes of post-Brexit law making.
The Withdrawal Bill reaches Report Stage in mid-January. We’ll carry on working tirelessly convincing MPs to defend their own right to have a say in what post-Brexit Britain will look like.