Over the last two days there have been two important votes in Parliament on Brexit that have potentially reasserted the power of Parliament in relation to the executive. As the Brexit endgame is being played out, the issue of Britain’s independence, real or nominal, has become wrapped up with the nature and extent of democracy in the UK. These issues take us to the very heart of representative government in Britain.
The immediate question has been how to try to stop PM May pushing the UK closer to the Brexit deadline in order to force MP’s to agree to the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) she has negotiated with the EU. May lacks a natural majority and is nevertheless bound by previous votes in 2017 to obtain Parliamentary agreement. This has posed a major headache for a government accustomed to being able to control Parliamentary business, since without a majority she has been exposed to Parliamentary ambushes by her moderate, centrist opponents on both sides.
The rise of an unofficial opposition
This opposition has being collaborating more and more closely, despite rather than because of the official opposition, and their success in limiting May’s freedom of manoeuvre has encouraged them. Thus the likes of Chuka Umanna and Yvette Cooper from Labour or Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve from the Tories have been meeting and liaising daily to coordinate activities. They are a mixed group, some Remainers, some moderate Conservatives who are opposed to the extremism of many Brexiters, some favouring a softer Brexit. Many but not all are in favour of a second referendum. Most are united in their opposition to a no-deal Brexit. As May has finally reached the point where she has to obtain Parliamentary agreement to her deal or threaten a no-deal Brexit with all the trauma involved, this centrist informal coalition has stepped forward. The last straw was when May pulled the vote due before Christmas on her deal. To many it seemed like an insult to Parliament.
Votes to reassert control
The first, largely symbolic act, on 8 January 2019, was an amendment to the Finance Bill to deny the application of certain taxes to government in the event of a no-deal Brexit. What it did was demonstrate that the coalition could command a majority, a powerful symbolic victory.
Yesterday, on 9 January, was a major shift not only in frustrating the PM’s efforts. Despite protestations from Brexiters, the Speaker agreed to allow an amendment to a business motion about the process of the debate on the WA. It compels the government to come back to the House within 3 days after any defeat on the WA with proposals on the next steps on Brexit. It stops May postponing any announcement to very close to Brexit day on 29 March and thus risking a no-deal Brexit in order to try to push Parliament into agreeing to her deal. Normally business motions are not amendable but the Speaker found a way round it. He was accused by Brexiters of bias but his many defenders saw his action as defending the rights of Parliament against an executive showing authoritarian tendencies.
Asserting the power of Parliament against an over-powerful executive
It’s taken a megacrisis like Brexit to bring this to pass. Parliament can seem arcane and abstruse to the outsider, and this can fuel the narrative of an out-of-touch political class, but this shift in the power balance has been long called for by MPs and outside observers. I would suggest that part of the democratic deficit that arguably underlay the Brexit vote was that for many years the executive has tightened its hand over Parliament and power has become very centralized in the Prime Minister and his/her inner circle. The UK has an over-centralized system of government, and this is its apogee.
May was trying to avoid Parliamentary consent to her deal with the EU, initially through the royal prerogative, and gradually Parliament has asserted itself and insisted on a role in the process. In so doing, we are arguably seeing a very real process of assertion of a broader democratic participation that has been missing from our national political life and stultifying it. Maybe this will in the end be one silver lining that emerges, however bloodily, from the Brexit conflict.