Thursday, 13 October 2016

Parliament asserts itself

There is suddenly just a hint that things are shifting. That is partly because of the continuing collapse of sterling I discussed in my last post, and its visible effects encapsulated in the great ‘marmite’ event (what better symbol could there be of the adverse effects of Brexit!). But, more, because the British parliament is now beginning to assert itself and – contrary to my last post – the Labour Party is now getting its act together. Yesterday not only did Jeremy Corbyn question the Prime Minister very effectively over Brexit plans, but the Labour Party set out some 170 questions about these plans and managed to force a parliamentary debate on scrutiny of the process (spearheaded by Keir Starmer who looks set to be a key figure in the coming months and years) itself the first concession by May’s government.

Within that debate MP after MP stood up to make often passionate, detailed and well-informed statements dissecting the ludicrousness of the present situation. It was riveting – and refreshing - to watch. Whilst most were at pains to say they accepted the result, and that Britain would leave the EU, the dominant theme was that this did not provide a mandate for any particular form of Brexit, and certainly not for leaving the single market. Moreover, they insisted that it should be for parliament to debate and vote on the terms of exit. Finally, the idea that all debate ended on June 23 has been put to bed, and, finally, the 48% have a voice.

Some Brexiters spoke, of course, but having made so much of parliamentary sovereignty in the campaign it was hard for them to make a coherent case against it now. And no doubt if (as could still happen) the government ends up pursuing soft Brexit they would argue that it should be subject to parliament. Indeed, a particular weakness of their position is that so many of them have been ‘rebels’ in the past, using the primacy of parliament as their justification – including David Davis, who now heads the government ministry primarily charged with Brexit.

The Labour position seems to have moved towards something like the model I posted about on September 7 of EEA single market membership with a beefed up emergency brake on immigration which might be achievable in negotiations with the EU and (with deft footwork) politically sellable to the UK electorate. There are grave difficulties, of course, but it is at least now an agreed position. Pressure has also increased for soft Brexit with the SNP Conference looking towards another independence referendum.

However, what in the long run may be most significant is how many Tories spoke against hard Brexit in the debate, including by my count eight former cabinet ministers. Given the government’s slender majority, they are well-placed to take, in reverse, the role of ‘the bastards’ in the Treaty Maastricht debates in the early 1990s that shook John Major’s premiership and which started the process within the Tory Party that led, ultimately, to the referendum.

The government response to all this was anodyne, re-stating the position that they would seek the best possible deal but would not reveal what they meant by that and would not allow any vote, either on the terms of withdrawal or the triggering of Article 50 (this latter issue being the subject of a legal challenge which started today). It will be a difficult line to hold. Outside of parliament, the Brexit press was much less anodyne and seems rattled – a vituperative editorial in today’s Daily Mail being a prime example.

The UK is an old and complex democracy, whereas referenda are unsubtle and, within the UK, very recent political instruments. Whilst Brexiters want to claim that the narrow vote of June 23 is some unanswerable and inviolable democratic truth, they may be about to find that – as with so much else that they believe – reality is not so straightforward.

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