An unexpected outcome of the tortuous process of Brexit negotiations has been the enhancement of Britain’s reputation as a parliamentary democracy. For many years, it has seemed as if political debate was draining away to the TV and radio studios, or even to social media — with MPs reduced to simply rubber-stamping decisions which have already been made elsewhere. This week, the Commons reasserted its authority in the most dramatic way imaginable, inflicting the largest ever government defeat on a substantive motion. The rejection of the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal is a humiliation on a scale which confounded the government’s attempts at expectation-management.
To Mrs May’s credit, she immediately conceded that MPs must decide what happens next. As she told the House, the defeat tells us what MPs do not want but nothing about what they would, collectively, find acceptable. They have already given approval for Britain to leave without a deal on 29 March — this happened when Article 50 was invoked — so they must now come up with something else. If they want a deal, they must make it clear to the EU what sort of deal they would approve. If the EU stonewalls parliament in the way it has stonewalled Mrs May, and refuses to reopen negotiations, then MPs must decide between two options: to leave with no deal or to rescind Article 50 and stay in the EU — which would require the support of the electorate in a second referendum.
There will be more dramatic evenings in the Commons before the matter is settled. That should be seen as a positive development: it shows the rude health of our parliamentary democracy in contrast to the stale oligarchy of the EU. Jean-Claude Juncker does not have to fear losing a vote in the way Theresa May did on Tuesday. She and Michel Barnier both agreed a deal that was soundly rejected, so both failed in their job. But when Barnier went to work on Wednesday morning, he won a round of applause.
The aloofness of the unelected officials on the EU side of the negotiations has reminded many people why they voted to leave in the first place. It shows why ‘Take Back Control’ was such a powerful slogan for the Leave campaign. The Commons has demonstrated how laws should be made — through raw and noisy debate between representatives of the people. Democracy means making life uncomfortable for public officials from time to time. Tory Remainers may now side with Labour to soften Brexit. If they do, they will have to answer to their constituents.
While MPs have a right — indeed, a duty — to scrutinise any Brexit deal, they cannot forget that parliament chose to give this decision to the country in a referendum. In the 2017 election, the majority of MPs stood on manifestos that committed them to deliver on that referendum result. To fail to do so would be to invite an almighty backlash. It is tempting for MPs to imagine that in standing up to Theresa May, they are following in the footsteps of their parliamentary forebears. But their instructions were contained in the referendum result. Polls suggest public opinion has not really changed since.
It does not reflect well on Brexiteer MPs that none of them voted for Dominic Grieve’s amendment of a year ago which obliged the government to hold such a vote. Too many were happy for Mrs May and her cabinet colleagues to set the terms of Brexit without parliamentary approval.
Why could Mrs May, in her Downing Street bunker, not see that what she had negotiated in Brussels was doomed? Why did she allow civil servants to oversee the process, rather than trusting her Brexit Secretaries? They were mindful that there was a democratic test to pass. As her deal was defeated, the news was celebrated by both Remain and Brexit protesters gathered outside parliament. In one sense Mrs May has succeeded in bringing together a fractious country, but only by uniting it against her own flawed policy.
When Mrs May lost her party’s majority in the 2017 election, it should have been clear to her that she would need to come up with a Brexit solution which could command wide support across the house. Instead, she ploughed on, hoping to deliver a fait accompli which she assumed MPs would accept. This might have been a workable strategy for Thatcher and Blair, with their enormous majorities — and even Brown and Cameron, the latter of whom at least had a stable coalition. But it was never going to work for her.
She should have learned from her fiasco over the Article 50 vote that a government has no reason to fear parliament if it has a good case. Yet her ministers fought bitterly in the courts to try to prevent MPs from having a say in the enactment of Article 50. When, eventually, the government lost the legal case and the vote was held, it won easily.
The Remain lobby then put forward a good argument: why, when the government had adopted the case for returning sovereignty from Brussels to the UK parliament, was it suddenly trying to bypass parliament and deny MPs a vote on Article 50? The Brexiteers usually argue that their faith lies in British institutions and that parliament will, in the long run, do the right thing. This faith will now be put to the test.