From now on Theresa May can ignore Parliament
Theresa May has striven mightily at every stage to avoid Parliamentary restraint on her Brexit negotiations with the rest of the EU. She fought in the courts to the bitter end against the principle that the triggering of Article 50 required the prior approval from Parliament. A White Paper was extracted out of the government in a manner akin to that used by Lord Olivier in Marathon Man. The White Paper thus extracted was so anodyne that vanilla seemed tangy after reading it. The Article 50 Bill was pushed through Parliament with every attempt to place any restraint on the way in which the government negotiates Brexit stripped out. It received Royal Assent on Wednesday in pristine form. The only commitment that the Government has given is to allow a vote on the final deal on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Leaving it would mean that Britain left the EU without any deal at all. So from now on, Theresa May can ignore Parliament.
Throughout all of this process, Theresa May has been aided and abetted by the ardent Leavers and their press supporters. Judges were vilified for issuing inconvenient judgments, to the point of being described as enemies of the people. The more hardcore Leavers contemplated the abolition of the House of Lords when it sought to impose conditions on the Article 50 Bill. They are no doubt surveying the outcome with great satisfaction.
Those Leavers who are regarded on their own side as intellectuals have often stressed how Brexit would restore Parliamentary sovereignty. Yet they have fought tooth and nail to remove Parliament’s role in the exit process. These are Augustinian Leavers – Lord give me Parliamentary sovereignty, but not yet.
But they do not seem to realise what they have done. Because this was never a battle between Leavers and Remainers. This was, as the courts explained in their judgments in the Article 50 case, a question of where power lay between the Government and Parliament. The courts concluded that Parliament held the power to initiate the triggering of Article 50.
Throughout the Second World War, Parliament debated war aims, strategy and progress. Chamberlain fell over just such a debate. No matter how keen many Leavers are on analogies from the 1940s, even they would struggle to describe Brexit as operating on a higher plane than a global war. But the Leaver MPs have fallen far below their predecessors, acting as lobby fodder to abdicate their role to the Government. From now on, the executive has complete control.
It is important to understand what that means. Between the triggering of Article 50 (A Day) and the day of Brexit (B Day), Theresa May’s government can set whatever policy it thinks fit. It is far from clear that policy will be one of hard Brexit. The negotiations have not yet started. No one yet knows where they are going to finish. Unless there is no deal at all, the deal will involve compromise on the British side in some ways. And if the Government compromises in some ways, we can expect the ultra-orthodox Leavers to be outraged.
But they will have no direct outlet for that outrage. The Government negotiations are not to be controlled by Parliament. Ministers may be brought before select committees, whose members may huff and puff, but ultimately if a deal is struck it will be put before Parliament on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Given the balance of the House of Commons, that deal will be taken. The ultra-orthodox Leavers have voted for their own impotence. By B Day, their vision of a Britain with no ties to the EU of any kind might well have been flushed down the pan.
Now imagine that the House of Commons had approached this differently, with a will to ensure that it kept a tight rein on the Government. Given the small majority of the Government in the House of Commons, a relatively small number of Conservative MPs on either side of the party (perhaps even working in concert) could have secured this. The Government could then have been required to explain its approach to MPs and win their support for approach on broad policy decisions. The Government would have been forced to do the hard thinking that David Davis freely admitted before the select committee this week had not yet been undertaken. It might even have helped build that consensus that the Prime Minister is set to tour the nation to build.
So when the Leaver MPs are betrayed, as in their own minds they most certainly will be, and Brexit is not negotiated to their complete satisfaction, they are going to be unable to express themselves through normal Parliamentary means. The newspaper front pages will no doubt scream, but they will do so largely impotently.
How will the hardline Leavers continue their campaign? They’ve just helped to close off the conventional route. But that frustration will find a vent somehow. But how?