May refuses to take her own advice – Tyler comment for Western Morning News

“British Judges, in a British Court, rule that the British Constitution means that the British Parliament is Sovereign”.   You would think that Nigel Farage and the Daily Mail would be dancing for joy !

Not so.  As Michael Deacon brilliantly sums it all up in the Daily Telegraph: “The MPs who wanted to hand power back to British judges now want to take power away from British judges to stop British judges stopping MPs from handing power back to them.”

If you weren’t confused previously, I bet you are now.

In reality, the issue is simple but really significant.  In our Parliamentary democracy is it legitimate – let alone sensible – for the Government to keep the public and their elected representatives in the dark on the biggest decisions of our decade ?   At a more personal level why should not Westcountry farmers, fishermen and small business people be given a full picture of the Prime Minister’s intentions, and – through their MPs – have a full opportunity to examine and influence them ?

As things stand their opposite numbers in the other 27 EU countries will be better informed than we here are.  Irish farmers, Spanish fishermen and SMEs throughout the Continent will be able to assess the best way forward, in terms of their own businesses, in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, while our own will be ignored.  And the issues could be critical:  do the Prime Minister and her three Brexiteers (Davis, Fox,  and Johnson) hope to retain a European market for our agricultural products, prevent a free-for-all in the fishing grounds beyond the 12-mile limit and stop a slide into much greater tariff and regulation bureaucracy than we have ever suffered within the EU ?    What is the choice facing us all ?

A number of Conservative former Ministers, backbench MPs and Peers have expressed their bafflement, since the High Court judgement, that Theresa May did not immediately accept it,  table a motion or draft Bill in the Commons, and avoid the delay and cost to the taxpayer of an appeal to the UK’s Supreme Court.

After all, as I pointed out in the Lords last week, she herself promised in a Conservative election manifesto to make “the use of the Royal Prerogative subject to greater control so that Parliament is properly involved in all big national decisions.”   The judges agreed with that.  Why does she refuse to take her own advice as well as theirs ?

Presumably the Government’s problem is that they are scared of the fanatics in the tabloid press.

They shouldn’t be.   As Dominic Grieve MP, former Conservative Attorney General, pointed out the reaction of these newspapers was reminiscent of Robert Mugabe’s attitude to the rule of law in Zimbabwe.  “The judges did exactly what was asked of them”, he said, “they highlighted that our constitution does not allow you to overturn statute law by decree, which is so well established in this country.”  He went on to compare the attack of the Daily Mail on our judicial system as comparable to that of the propaganda papers in Nazi Germany.   He was obviously reminding us that the Daily Mail supported Hitler and the Black Shirts in the 1930s.

The Conservative Chairman of the Justice Select Committee, Bob Neill MP, described the media’s frenzied criticism of the High Court as “utterly disgraceful”.  He went on “all Ministers from the Prime Minister down must now make clear that the independence of the judiciary is fundamental to our democracy.”

At the weekend there was widespread concern at the reluctance of the PM and her Lord Chancellor, whose job it is to stand up for the rule of law and those who administer it, to challenge the newspaper editors.    Conservative MP Anna Soubry wrote “the Lord Chancellor has failed in her duty to defend the judiciary.  As a former barrister I’m embarrassed and appalled.”   Many of her party colleagues expressed agreement.

For one Conservative MP all this appears to have been the last straw.  Although he had voted in the referendum to leave the EU Stephen Phillips resigned on Friday, accusing Ministers of ignoring Parliament since the tiny Brexit majority.

We should be quite clear:  very few Parliamentarians would dream of trying to simply reverse the June result, even if the 3.8% margin seemed to have dissolved in the light of likely consequences.  There may be a small number of Conservative Peers – who shared with Margaret Thatcher the huge achievement of the European Single Market and Britain’s leading role in it – who believe that something better than painful access to it must be negotiated.  I don’t believe, however, that even they would want to simply block the trigger of Article 50 next year, although they may wish, with others, to attach conditions.

But the issue of the sovereignty of the British Parliament, and our centuries old reliance on the rule of law, are even more important to our future as a democracy than the way in which the forthcoming negotiations are handled.

Meanwhile, we can only admire the unusual honesty of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson when he admitted last week “Brexit will be a Titanic success.”   Watch out for that iceberg.

Paul Tyler was Liberal Democrat MP for North Cornwall 1992 – 2005 and is now the party’s constitutional spokesperson in the House of Lords.  This article was first published by the Western Morning News on Friday 11th November 2016

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