Parliament has taken back control of the Brexit process and some don’t like it. The Sunday Times front page carried the headline “A Very British Coup” with a piece that claimed there is a crossparty, backbench “plot.” The truth is that the UK’s legislature has historically, more often than not, been the executive’s poodle. But no longer – this is not a coup, it is parliamentary democracy in action and it’s about time too.
Our job as legislators is not to rubberstamp whatever the government wants, quite the opposite. We are determined to ensure the House of Commons does not have to dance to the tune of ministers who want to run down the clock and blackmail MPs into voting for the prime minister’s withdrawal agreement and political declaration on the future trading relationship with the EU, which her own economic impact assessments tell us will make our country poorer.
In her speech this morning in Stoke-on-Trent, the prime minister warns that if Brexit is delayed or doesn’t happen, “people’s faith in the democratic process and their politicians would suffer catastrophic harm”. But there has already been that catastrophic breach of trust because Brexit in the form that Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and other Leave campaigners promised, has proved impossible to deliver. For example, on 15 June 2016, the Vote Leave campaign they led declared “after we Vote Leave, we would immediately be able to start negotiating new trade deals with emerging economies and the world’s biggest economies … which could enter into force immediately after the UK leaves the EU.” Not one new trade deal has been negotiated or will enter in to force the day after Brexit, if Brexit happens.
There is no time to waste. There are fewer than 38 sitting days between now and the stipulated exit day on 29 March for the necessary legislation to pass through parliament. As a minimum, the trade, agriculture and fisheries bills, in addition to between 800 and 1000 pieces of secondary legislation, will need to be passed by both Houses of Parliament by that date. Even if the Commons sat at the weekends and late into the night, every night, it is difficult to see how practically we will be able to get through this all in time. All roads appear to be headed towards the UK requesting an extension to the two-year Article 50 period as a result.
In order to extend the Article 50 process and avoid the UK crashing out with no deal, the prime minister would have to make such a request some time before the EU Council scheduled for 21 and 22 March. Officials at the EU institutions tell me that if Theresa May wishes to do this she will have to do so by the start of the two-week preparatory phase ahead of that summit, so on or before 7 March. That’s just over six weeks away. She would want to secure the agreement of other EU leaders in advance of that Council so will likely engage in yet another tour of European capitals.
If the government loses the vote tomorrow, the other side of the negotiating table has zero appetite for reopening the legal text of the withdrawal agreement and say we will not be granted an extension for renegotiation, though they will do so for the purposes of a democratic vote. So the Commons does not have long to illustrate that a People’s Vote is what it collectively wants in order to get that extension and avoid a no-deal scenario.
It is for this reason that it is vital when – as we all expect – May loses the vote tomorrow, the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, immediately tables a motion of no confidence in the government to see if an early general election is possible, as set out in the Labour Party’s Annual Conference motion on Brexitwhich said: “if we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote”. It is important to note that no condition was attached that said Labour should only attempt to pursue an election if such a move is guaranteed to be successful.
Given the DUP have said they will continue to supply confidence to the government if May loses the vote on the withdrawal agreement, a motion of no confidence is unlikely to be a success – better to test that now and move on to other options. That will leave a People’s Vote on the terms of our departure as the key that will unlock the door to the Article 50 extension we need. The hope is that the desire to avoid having to make a decision on a People’s Vote is not the reason for the Labour leadership’s delay in tabling the no confidence motion.
There will be all sorts of can-kicking manoeuvres in the form of amendments to the further motion the Government is required to table, after the defeat, detailing what it intends to do next – that further motion must be tabled on or by next Monday. Sooner or later, the House of Commons will have to make up its mind on whether it wishes to carry on excluding the people from being involved now that the negotiations are over and the prime minister has returned from Brussels with an agreement. The urgency of the situation cannot be overstated, which explains why, overnight, the numbers signing Yorkshire MP Angela Smith’s petition asking that Labour backs a People’s Vote “at the earliest opportunity” hit 40,000 signatories.
What is at stake this week is the future of the country, so it is fitting to leave the last word to student activist Lucy Holland – who is part of the campaign group For Our Future’s Sake. At the 500-strong People’s Vote rally in Sheffield over the weekend, Lucy told those gathered: “Young people will not forgive, nor will we forget. Heed my words. If you take away our future it is going to affect yours, because it is hard to be prime minister if young people don’t vote for you.” Never mind Theresa May, none of us will be forgiven by future generations if we are complicit in facilitating this disaster.