Alastair Meeks on the government’s strategy on Parliamentary votes
Take back control, Vote Leave said. Marching in part under a banner of restoring Parliamentary sovereignty, they stormed the barricades and secured their referendum victory.
Since then, however, the enthusiasm of Camp Leave for Parliamentary sovereignty has been flaky at best. The Brexit-trumpeting tabloids went berserk when first the High Court then the Supreme Court found that the triggering of Article 50, the exit clause from the EU, needed to be sanctioned by Parliament. For upholding the supremacy of Parliament, the High Court judges (one of whom, the Daily Mail darkly noted, was an openly gay ex-Olympic fencer) were lambasted as enemies of the people.
The government’s response to this judicial requirement for Parliamentary oversight was no more open-handed. It rammed a two section enabling Act through Parliament, simply empowering the Prime Minister to pull the trigger, which she duly did on 29 March 2017. Parliament was to be bypassed.
After the general election, Theresa May found that she had mislaid her majority. Minority governments are always tough to run and this one was always going to prove exceptionally difficult to manage in Parliament, given the many different factions on Brexit in all the parties. So how has Theresa May’s government dealt with this challenge?
To date, the government has chosen largely to ignore it. It has directed a three line whip to abstain on motions to stop the government raising tuition fees, to increase pay for NHS staff and to pause universal credit. Having lost those votes, the government has ignored them all.
This week, the government has pulled the same stunt. It has directed an abstention on a motion requiring the government to produce its 58 impact assessments on the economic consequences of Brexit. This time it cannot ignore the vote. It is going to have to release at least redacted versions. Still, as Anna Soubry’s tweet above shows, the disregard for Parliament is causing it to lose credibility with MPs.
It seems that the government is led by Augustinian Leavers: Lord give me Parliamentary sovereignty, but not yet.
It cannot be stressed strongly enough how dumb this is. The government was so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should. By acting in this way, the government is confirming every suspicion that Remain supporters have that Parliamentary sovereignty was a figleaf for much darker nativist Leaver instincts. It is also needlessly alienating those Leavers in Parliament for whom Parliamentary sovereignty is a very big deal indeed.
This would not matter particularly, but sooner or later the government is going to need votes for its European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. It is creating a political climate in which it is not going to be given the benefit of the doubt. Parliamentarians were always going to be tough to square when the government is seeking sweeping powers to alter laws under subsidiary legislation. That cause is looking more forlorn by the day. By showing contempt for MPs, the government is encouraging MPs to show it who is boss.
What should the government have done? This is easy. Instead of trying to pull a stunt, it should have fought each of these votes. If it had lost those votes, it should have listened to the will of Parliament and made meaningful concessions.
This is not particularly groundbreaking: it was, for example, exactly what Labour did when they lost the vote on Gurkha’s pensions. Phil Woolas, the Immigration minister who presided over the defeat at the time, said: “This government respects the will of the House of Commons.” This government instead has been demonstrating repeatedly that it does not.