Although Brexit has not yet taken place, it has already had an admirably invigorating effect on the House of Commons. Ninety MPs wanted to speak yesterday, on the second day of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and during more than eight hours of debate, many passionate defences of parliamentary sovereignty were uttered.
And most of these defences were made by MPs who regard Brexit as a dreadful blunder. Sir Ed Davey (Lib Dem, Kingston & Surbiton) claimed “this Bill is undermining parliamentary sovereignty more than the EU ever did”, for it “doesn’t give control back to Parliament. It gives control back to ministers.”
Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda) declared in a passion: “This Bill is utterly pernicious…fundamentally unBritish…has at its heart a lie.” Oliver Letwin (Con, West Dorset) rose, cited provisions in the Bill which contradict Bryant’s claim that it will allow legislation by ministerial fiat, and invited him to withdraw that claim.
Bryant responded by saying, “I’m not going to give way to him again,” and ended: “Do not sell your birthright for a mess of pottage. Vote against the Bill.”
Daniel Zeichner (Lab, Cambridge) declared: “We should not be withdrawing from the European Union at all.” He suggested that “all the alternatives on offer are worse than staying in”, and concluded: “I really fear we are in danger of sleepwalking into a calamity.”
There can be no doubt that many of his constituents in Cambridge think this, and will be delighted he said it. But Jack Brereton (Con, Stoke-on-Trent South) reported that “my constituents want the Government to get on with the job”. Ben Bradley (Con, Mansfield) spoke in a similar vein.
Conservative MPs from Scotland mocked Scottish Nationalists who were warning in apocalyptic terms against transferring powers from Brussels to London, but had never uttered a word of protest when those same powers were exercised with little or no accountability by the EU.
And Victoria Atkins (Con, Louth & Horncastle) remarked, after listening to a good chunk of the debate, that “many eagle-eyed people” will be watching vigilantly to see that the British Government does not behave in an anti-parliamentary manner.
She pointed out that transferring 40 years’ worth of EU law into British law is “an enormous task”, and “I haven’t yet heard anyone come up with a different way of doing this”.
Enoch Powell opposed British accession to the European Economic Community, as it was known in those days, in terms of parliamentary sovereignty, and last night’s debate was a resounding vindication of Powell’s argument, with his opponents paying him the belated compliment of imitating him.
Many people nevertheless agreed that the Bill will require improvement when it reaches the Committee stage. Letwin had already pointed out, when he spoke on Thursday during the first day of the debate, that it was possible to disapprove of some provisions in the Bill, yet support it at this stage:
“One of the most fascinating aspects of the debate has been the appearance of logic in what was said by not only the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), but the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), and the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). What they said sounded forensic and logical. The structure of their argument, as I think other Members will recognise, is as follows: ‘We do not like clause 9, we do not like clause 17 and we do not like schedule 7, and therefore, instead of waiting to see whether they will change in Committee before voting on Third Reading, we will reject the Bill on Second Reading.’
“That is not what logicians call logic; it is what they call a non sequitur, which prompts the question, ‘Why the non sequitur?’ The answer is that the three people whom I have just mentioned are among the cleverest people in Parliament. They understand logic perfectly well, and they understand what a non sequitur is. The reason they are engaging in such an argument is that they hope to make some combination of trouble for the Government, or for the Brexit process. Conservative Members should pay not the slightest attention to such ‘un-arguments’ and should get on with the business of examining the Bill as it is.”
Late last night, Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Lab, Brighton Kemptown) contended that the Bill is so defective, trying to amend it is like “fiddling with the deckchairs on a sinking ship”. Yet as one listened to the debate, one could not avoid the impression that Labour is not an especially seaworthy vessel.
Many Labour MPs began by saying that they were, personally, Remainers, but they would respect the outcome of the referendum. Yet although a small minority of Labour MPs carry on that party’s proud tradition of Euroscepticism, in most cases it was clear that they yearn to scupper Brexit.
It is the duty of a Opposition to oppose, and the temptation to try to make difficulties for the Government is almost irresistible. James Frith (Lab, Bury North) insisted that like many of his colleagues, he is offering “scrutiny, not mutiny”. Whether Labour voters who in the past have supported UKIP will see it that way is questionable. But Labour’s wrecking amendment was in any case defeated by 318 votes to 296.
David Lidington, the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, wound up for the Government. Kenneth Clarke (Con, Rushcliffe) and Dominic Grieve (Con, Beaconsfield) intervened to demand, in the words of the former, “substantial amendments” at the Committee stage, in order to deal with “the huge extension of discretionary powers to the Government”.
No such promise was forthcoming. Lidington suggested “there are sufficient safeguards already within the Bill itself”, but added in a slightly more conciliatory tone that ministers “intend to discuss these suggestions further”.
At once point, Lidington spoke of “Rushfield”, an inadvertent combination of Rushcliffe and Beaconsfield, the constituencies of his two most eminent Tory critics. Although the Bill last night passed this hurdle by the relatively comfortable margin of 326 votes to 290, a hard process of legislative scrutiny lies ahead. The Commons is doing exactly what it is supposed to do, namely acting as the legislature of a sovereign country.