Is it too much to expect the House of Commons to come into its own as we embark on the heavy legislation around Brexit?
Withdrawing from the European Union could be a total, unmitigated catastrophe. While I would prefer the British public to have the final say on whether to proceed with any deal reached, at present there are too few MPs who share that view. We must therefore be in the business of ensuring that parliament puts in place strong safeguards, if we are indeed going to leave the EU.
The government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill currently neuters parliament and transfers decision-making to the hands of the prime minister, whoever that may be at the time. That is simply unacceptable on an issue as profound as this. The decision to nominate “exit day” should not be left unconditionally to ministers; parliament must, at the very least, say what conditions must be met before we take that leap.
The amendment that Ken Clarke and I have drafted starts with Theresa May’s own words in her Florence speech, where she elaborated on the sort of transition and implementation arrangements she wants to see for at least two years. We are simply proposing that these words be enshrined in the legislation – because otherwise there is nothing but a verbal commitment from the current PM to seek such a transition.
The Prime Minister says that any transition should maintain access between EU and UK markets on current terms, keep the existing structures of EU rules, regulations and security cooperation, give time for new regulatory arrangements and immigration systems to be developed and allow the UK to honour its financial commitments. We agree – and we believe there is a Commons majority who also agree. If such a transition doesn’t feature in the withdrawal agreement treaty, then we shouldn’t allow ministers to unilaterally appoint “exit day”, and parliament should be consulted afresh.
There are many other excellent amendments now on the order paper and due to be debated over the eight days (an inadequate period of time) during the committee of the whole House. Some amendments require parliament to ratify any new treaty before the 1972 European Communities Act can be repealed. Other amendments, including from former Conservative attorney general Dominic Grieve, quite rightly try to retain the Charter of Fundamental Rights, to allow legal challenges on grounds of breaching general principles of EU law and to restrict ministerial regulation-making powers. Dozens of backbench MPs are now tabling and signing up to their own amendments to this Bill.
So the big question is this: can MPs overcome their party-political reticence and work together in the national interest on Brexit? There are plenty who will sneer at MPs who seek such alliances, let alone show a willingness to talk with their traditional opponents. But if ever there were a once-in-a-generation moment to set aside hardline ideologies then this is it.
Brexit will in many ways have a more lasting impact than any single general election, which is why members of the public find party-political point scoring at this time worse than futile. Thankfully our parliamentary democracy gives MPs the latitude to be more than pure delegates, to think for themselves and to reject the creeping presidentialisation of politics. In short, parliament must assert itself now and show the country some leadership.
The clock is ticking. Though the pace of negotiations is hardly reassuring, it is still more likely than not that a “deal” of some sort will be reached. But we must understand that nothing can match our existing membership of the Single Market as the most far-reaching and comprehensive free trade agreement available between any countries anywhere else in the world. Seeking to retain these benefits during a few years of “transition” is the very least we should be doing. So forging a consensus between MPs to get this done is a worthwhile goal.