With the Government So Weak, Parliament Must Take Control of Brexit

It seems that the aphorism, coined after the Theresa May’s poor showing at the polls, is true. Denial is a river in Maidenhead.

May called a snap poll in order to give her government a Brexit mandate. By losing her majority, she forfeited that mandate. Continuing to plough on as if nothing has changed, the Prime Minister is showing the same tin-ear that she demonstrated on Downing Street when she gave the same speech she might have given had she won a with commanding landslide.

Although she hopes to carve out a majority by allying with the Democratic Unionist Party, she is now subject to the whims of her new partners and her rebellious backbenchers. The government is clutching to its political legitimacy with the tenderest of straws. Following the fire at Grenfell Tower, May has both lost credibility but also the moral leadership the country needs: the Prime Minister’s own future is being measured in months at best.

Negotiations have already started but, by acting as if nothing has changed, the government is failing the country.

As Britain begins the most important negotiations of the last half century, we have our weakest government since 1974. Those with whom we are negotiating will look across the table and wonder whether it will be the same faces they see at the next meeting.

Faced with such parliamentary gridlock, the most obvious solution would be a government of national unity. Brexit will be one of the greatest upheavals that the British economy has ever seen. The country faces a crippling exit from the European Union. In any rational system, two parties would be able put aside differences in such testings time.

Yet Jeremy Corbyn would never serve in a Tory-led coalition. It is unlikely that Theresa May, or any other Tory leader, would offer him any position.

The irony is that, while there is a gulf on other issues, their positions on Brexit are virtually indistinguishable.

There is a further truth: both leaderships are out of step with voters and with their parliamentary parties.

MPs must use the government's weakness to strengthen their position

The Conservatives’ weakness was shown when Brexit Secretary David Davis caved in on the timetable of negotiations: our divorce will be settled before our future relationship talks will begin.

May’s uncertain future means that positions, agreed at the negotiating table, might become worthless as they are ratified by the EU 27. Were May to resign, her successor would lack a personal mandate and would face the same parliamentary arithmetic.

Wilful stubbornness does not exist on one side of the House of the Commons though. Denial runs through Islington North too.

Jeremy Corbyn may mock the Prime Minister by offering strong and stable leadership in the national interest; however, any progressive coalition would command fewer seats than the Conservatives; with the Conservatives shell-shocked from their poll drubbing, they are unlikely to support an early election, required under the Fixed-term Parliament Act.

The parliamentary facts might remain for sometime. Weak government is here to stay - whoever leads it.

The process of Brexit requires a majority of both Houses of Parliament, as does any deal reached at the end of the negotiating period. MPs must use the government's weakness to strengthen their position. 

Since June 9th, there has been a lot of talk about finding a new consensus on Brexit: a special House of Commons commission that will find cross-party support as well as greater consensus in the country at large. This should have been done in the immediate aftermath of the referendum. That it did not speaks volumes about parliament’s subservience in the face of a hubristic executive and powerful Brexit cartel in the mainstream media.

That subservience can now stop. The election not only weakened May, it showed the waning power of the right-wing press.

this issue is too important for petty considerations. The long term must govern actions here

In 2011, a Conservative rebellion pressured David Cameron into making his referendum pledge. MPs now have a greater opportunity to rectify Britain’s failure of leadership.

With the country divided, Parliament must assert itself. MPs must go further than seizing back the agenda from the government, they must seize back the process.

The Commons must insist that the government pauses the Brexit process. They must set up a commission that aims to form a new negotiating position by September for the next parliamentary session and when German elections are over. MPs of all parties need to forge a new consensus on how Britain can untangle its legislation from the EU, and find a middle ground that recognises the importance of the Single Market and Customs Union to our economic prosperity.

That alone is insufficient. Neither party Conservative nor Labour can command a majority and would struggle to pass any final deal. Instead, Parliament must break its tribal divide, and end the stranglehold of government: they must insist that the only body who can negotiate with the EU 27 is Parliament itself, not government. Only then will our partners understand that they are negotiating with a consistent team that can weather Britain’s political turbulence.

By forcing a spectacular u-turn, MPs would be heaping superficial humiliation upon the government. But we are already humiliated: May’s failure has reduced the United Kingdom to an international laughing stock. Besides, this issue is too important for petty considerations. The long term must govern actions here. By ridding Brexit of its political toxicity, MPs will not just be doing themselves a favour but they will be serving their country.  

For Parliament to lead the negotiation process would be unusual but it would not be unconstitutional. It would be a solution that matches the seriousness of our times.

And MPs could say that they were “taking back control”.

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Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.

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