With a Parliamentary majority so devastatingly weakened by the now fatal decision to call a General Election last June, it was only a matter of time before Theresa May saw her first major House of Commons defeat over her flagship European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Long gone are the days of parliamentary success under Tony Blair, for whom it was eight years before his Labour Government was defeated in the House. A string of fragile governments, slender majorities, and a Coalition Government have seen a succession of Prime Ministers face high-profile defeats on significant, highly divisive pieces of legislation. Yet, the symbolic nature of the vote was undoubtedly far more significant than the 24-worded amendment ('Amendment 7') proposed by former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, would suggest.
Simply put, the surprise victory on 13th December was a first step in guaranteeing that any Brexit deal on Britain’s future relationship with Europe will have to be approved by a separate Act of Parliament before it can be implemented. Withstanding the last minute drama of a proposed Government concession, it was ultimately “far too little too late” for the eleven “Brexit Saboteurs” from the Conservative backbenches. They defied the last minute desperate efforts of the Government Whip, holding firm in their insistence that the 'mother of all parliaments' should have its say on the most important issue that the country has faced since World War Two.
Exactly why there is such controversy over the sovereignty of Parliament raises a number of worrying questions for our democracy, particularly in light of the list of parliamentarians who voted against Amendment 7. Spearheading opposition was the once arch-constitutionalist David Davis, a man whose previous reputation as a ‘politician of principle’ is in serious danger of being shattered after an unfortunate period as Brexit Secretary. This culminated not long ago in the bemusing refusal to commit to the payment of Britain’s Brexit bill if a trade deal with the EU is not reached: a refusal, it must be noted, rebuked by the Chancellor, who has rightly pointed out that such a failure would render the United Kingdom untrustworthy in all future international agreements. Notably, this was neither the first, nor likely the last time that Phillip Hammond will be at odds with the Cabinet over Brexit.
The case of David Davis in the debate surrounding the principles of Parliamentary sovereignty is a peculiar one. He joins a long list of parliamentarians who appear to be suffering from short term amnesia, given that just 18 months previously they were passionately championing the need for a return of sovereignty to the British Parliament. The self-styled “rule of law enthusiast,” David Davis has a long and extensive reputation as a politician of conviction, one committed to upholding the UK’s proudest conventions and institutions. Davis’s ‘libertarian’ credentials have at times even garnered support from all sides of the political spectrum. For example, his cross-party work with Tony Benn in defence of crucial civil liberties in anti-terrorism legislation, where Benn insisted that “Libertarians from the Left and Right sometimes meet in the middle against an authoritarian state.”
It is with comic irony that we now look at David Davis’s Private Member’s Bill, introduced in 1999, entitled ‘Parliamentary Control of the Executive’ - a Bill that proclaimed “Executive decisions by the Government should be subject to the scrutiny and approval of Parliament.” The Bill further lambasted the fact that “parliamentary scrutiny and control are either absent or inadequate” for “the control of information that should often be available to the public.” A noble demand, but one that now lacks serious credibility given the lengths to which the Exiting the EU Department has gone to ensure that the Brexit impact papers never see the light of day.
Unfortunately this is not unchartered territory. Prior to the referendum, Davis now infamously insisted that “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.” Yet, only last year he and the Government took to the dispatch box to cynically argue that Parliament should not have a vote on the Article 50 decision, a measure which started the process of UK withdrawal from the EU. This was, however, once again avoided, but not before the Government had gone to drastic lengths to fight a high profile and costly court case in an attempt to avoid Parliament having a say.
Scant conciliation for Davis can be found in the comfort that he is joined in this reversal of principle by former parliamentary institutionalists such Sir Bill Cash, John Redwood, and Iain Duncan Smith. Labour’s Kate Hoey and Frank Field round off a selection of high-profile “Vote Leave to Take Back Control” Brexiteers who walked through the ‘No Lobby’ on against the amendment. This unavoidably raises a number of confusing questions as to exactly what was meant by campaign promises such as “Vote to leave the EU to ensure law-making power returns to our sovereign national parliament.” While precisely where David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg now stand on their pre-referendum commitments to a “double referendum” strategy, involving a second referendum on the final Brexit deal, is also anyone’s guess.
Troublingly for the Government, last Wednesday's vote suggests that further opposition in Parliament is now likely to ensue as the Brexit Bill progresses. Those rebel Conservative backbenchers will unquestionably feel a renewed sense of purpose - no doubt spurred on by the depressing and outright shameful nature of criticism that has faced them in certain quarters of the press. Even fellow MPs such as Nadine Dorries, immediately accused them of “treachery” demanding they be “deselected and never allowed to stand as a Tory MP ever again.” Considerate words from an MP who has rebelled 43 times against the Government herself.
Whilst the decision made on June 23rd of last year was unambiguous in calling for the Government to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union, what must not be forgotten is that there are legitimate decisions that now need to be made as to how this should best be done. If we are to succumb to the demands of MPs such as Nadine Dorries, and the divisive name-shaming witnessed in inflammatory newspapers, irrespective of the details of any future deal, we will be left with a country that is dangerously more divided than at any time in recent memory. Whether you voted to Leave or Remain - this is in nobody’s interest.
Sources and further reading:
- Blair defeated over terror laws, BBC News, 9th Nov. 2005
- Amendment 7: What is it and how does it change Brexit?, Independent, 13th Dec. 2017
- Tory Brexit rebels inflict major defeat on Theresa May, the Guardian, 14th Dec. 2017
- “Europe: It’s Time To Decide”, David Davis MP speech
- Article 50 judgment: key points from the supreme court ruling, the Guardian, 24th Jan. 2017
- David Davis: ‘No deal means we won’t be paying the money’, Andrew Marr Show, 10th Dec. 2017
- Theresa May heads to Brussels for key talks after Tory Brexit rebels inflict humiliating Commons defeat, the Telegraph, 14th Dec. 2017
Image: Jason @Flickr