How do you listen to 100 episodes of a Brexit podcast hosted by BBC journalists and come away with the impression that the current impasse is the collective responsibility of all Members of Parliament?
This crisis, easily the greatest political crisis of my lifetime, is the responsibility of just one person – the Prime Minister Theresa May.
Recently, I’ve been listening to BBC Radio 5’s Brexitcast, and on their 100th episode they had a loyal listener phone in to share her thoughts. University student Izzy concluded (Episode 100, from 24:30):
“I think they just need to stop bickering and just get on with it to be honest”
This opinion, although popular across the country, is misguided, because of two fundamental truths of the British constitution:
- The government controls the Parliamentary timetable.
- Only the government can negotiate international treaties.
As Prime Minister, Theresa May has the final say on anything and everything her government does. Each week’s Parliamentary timetable is signed off by her, and it is her sole prerogative on what legislation she brings before the House to vote on, and when she brings it.
May has negotiated a deal that will make us all poorer, less safe, reduce our rights and freedoms, and only solves the Irish question by binding us to an international treaty without unilateral right of revocation (the so-called backstop). Under Theresa May’s deal we will both be poorer and have less sovereignty than as members of the EU. Latest government figures show that it’s very unlikely immigration will fall either. In what way is this either a) honouring the results of the referendum, or b) sound government policy?
We shouldn’t be surprised that it’s now been heavily voted down by the House of Commons twice.
However, no other MP has any authority or capacity to negotiate a different deal, and no other MP has the power to allocate Parliamentary time to debate other possible solutions and bring them to a vote. Even when given time by the Prime Minister, the results are only advisory motions, not legally binding articles of legislation.
Theresa May, on the other hand, can decide, as she has done since Article 50 was triggered on March 29th 2017, to:
- Waste over a year posturing, insulting negotiating partners and laying down red lines and objectives that are obviously incompatible;
- Spend the next year rowing back on all of those, alienating EU partners, allies, civil servants, Brexit and Foreign ministers;
- Refuse public consultation, or take on board any of the advice of the Exiting the EU select committee, or reach out to opposition parties to negotiate a bipartisan deal together;
- Only make very limited no-deal impact and contingency plans;
- Negotiate a deal that is immediately, resoundingly panned;
- Delay bringing her deal to vote before Parliament for a whole month;
- During that month, approach Trade Unions for the first time in these negotiations to discuss her withdrawal agreement;
- But still not even approach the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer;
- Face the largest Parliamentary defeat ever;
- Waste almost two months on a renegotiation effort that could never achieve what she wanted (due to the red line/objective conflict ‘not in a customs union/no hard border in Northern Ireland’);
- Bring the same deal back (now less than a month from leaving without any deal);
- See it defeated again by a huge majority;
- And then plan to bring it back to be voted on a third time next week.
Just how do you observe this timeline of events and conclude that it’s the fault of a “bickering” political class?
Parliament has now twice rejected May’s deal, and twice rejected a no-deal exit.
Despite this, May continues to bring her exact same deal before the House, and continues to insist, even though it was amended out of the motion approved by the House on Tuesday, that “the legal default remains that the UK will leave the EU without a deal unless something else is agreed”
Now that she has been instructed to by the House, she should a) negotiate a radically different deal, and b) pass legislation to prevent no-deal.
While May is correct that the current legal default is that we leave without a deal, she is the one with the power to bring forward Bills to change the law. Since Parliament wants a new legal default, she could, for example, present a Bill that says:
“If this House has not approved a negotiated deal or an extension to Article 50 by the end of March 28th 2019, then the UK will revoke its Article 50 application”
This unilateral revocation would be legal as per the European Court of Justice ruling on December 10. However, she doesn’t legally have to respect Parliament and present this, and she refuses to.
This is not Parliamentary “bickering”.
MPs have spoken clearly, so clearly, these last few months, yet the Prime Minister refuses to listen. And she is the one with all the power.
This crisis is solely on May’s shoulders. Her government cannot pass primary legislation, cannot pass finance bills unamended and cannot even whip it’s own ministers anymore. Yet she keeps bringing the exact same Withdrawal Bill back before the House, will not listen to the will of the House, and will not give Parliamentary time to explore alternatives.
With such a broken yet recalcitrant government, there is only one final course of action left to Parliament, but that is for another post. . .