Members of both Houses of Parliament are revolting …. not in terms of personal hygiene, but in their proper, constitutional role.


On Wednesday last week a cross-party amendment – which I signed and spoke on for the Liberal Democrats – was carried against the Government in the House of Lords by a record majority of 128.   The following day MPs of all the major Parties supported a motion in the Commons to keep open the option of the UK benefitting from our membership of our biggest market, challenging the “hard Brexit” policy of Theresa May.


This refusal to be pushed around for party advantage by Ministers started, in the best traditions of British democracy, with the voters.   Last summer the Leader of the Conservative Party was persuaded by her advisers that she could swamp the Commons with more subservient MPs, bury Jeremy Corbyn and finish off the Liberal Democrats at the same time, and speed up the stampede over the Brexit cliff.   Instead of increasing her majority, she lost it.   The electorate obstinately, but wisely, refused to play the Conservative game.


Instead of receiving a public mandate for her manifesto her minority Government has had to rely on a billion pound bribe to the DUP just to survive.


Fortunately, in our representative democracy, the executive is accountable to Parliament, not the other way round:   in short, Ministers answer to us, not we to them.


So the recent rigorous scrutiny of Government plans, in both Houses, is our correct constitutional role and responsibility.  The exact format may seem complicated, legalistic, even trivial, but it is crucial evidence of parliamentary sovereignty in practice.  Our amendment last week was very simple, but very significant.  We sought to take away the claimed right of Ministers to use their own subjective, personal judgement as to whether a new executive power was conveniently “appropriate”, and replace it with the wider and more objective judgement as to whether it was really “necessary”.


That may seem to be just playing with words.  However, led by very distinguished independent experts as well as representatives of all Parties, the House decided it really mattered.  Giving the Government new powers of this sort in their EU Withdrawal Bill could lead to a precedent in all future laws, permitting them to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny.   And the Minister responding to the debate seemed to have no answer at all when I pointed out that their very own White Paper promised that “legal and policy changes would be made under the Bill when it was necessary to ensure that the law continues to function properly after exit day.”


At the end of my speech, as a former Member of the Commons, I challenged current MPs to stand with us, defending Parliament against power-hungry Ministers:  “… speaker, after speaker, at every stage of the Bill, has emphasised that this must not be used as an opportunity to turn the Executive into an elective dictatorship.  It is the British Parliament that must take back control, not a minority Government.”


In the division on this amendment which followed 349 (out of 570) Peers voted to support us, and leading the charge were 92 Liberal Democrats and 13 rebel Conservatives, including a number of prominent ex-Ministers, resulting in that record majority.


We can be reasonably confident that MPs will support us on this issue, as with the other improvements we have voted for in recent weeks, because the amendments have been carried by such large majorities, led by independent Crossbencher Peers and agreed by members of all the major political Parties.   This is exactly how the constitution is supposed to work.  The House of Lords is given the explicit responsibility to provide a less partisan “second opinion”, which the House of Commons is often happy to endorse.


The following day a cross-Party group of MPs had their own chance to challenge Ministers,   examining the now revealed consequences of falling out of the Customs Union.  Given the alarming evidence from British companies, large and small, and the likely disastrous impact on Ireland, North and South, they too were clearly doing their constitutional duty.


In that long debate only three Conservative MPs from Cornwall and Devon took part.  I am not sure where all the others were, and what they now think.   Despite the weekly evidence from this part of the country that more and more farmers, fishermen and smaller businesses are now very apprehensive that the negotiated Brexit deal is going to leave them in a much less advantageous position than they currently enjoy, two of the three seemed to have got stuck in the record groove of the 2016 referendum.   Only Dr Sarah Wollaston made a powerful speech warning of the damage to the NHS, and pleading for a “dose of reality”.


This week the Lords have voted by a large majority to insist that Parliament – not just the Conservative Cabinet – have the final “meaning vote”, deciding between the deal on offer and remaining in the EU.


Throughout the early part of 2016 we were constantly urged by the extreme Brexiteers, and their millionaire friends in the tabloid media, that British Sovereignty demanded that “Parliament must take back control”.


Now that is just what we are doing, why are they so outraged ?

Reprinted from Western Morning News – April 2018


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