Ever since the referendum result in June, Parliament has been in a wrestling match with the government over various aspects of its aftermath. To begin with, there was the question of who should trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to initiate the negotiation process with the EU. This eventually had to be settled by the Supreme Court, which in the Miller case, ruled that the triggering of Article 50 should be done via a vote by Parliament and not by executive action alone through the royal prerogative.
This week saw the second round settled, as the government was defeated in a vote on the amendment of a particular provision of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. The now infamous Amendment 7 was proposed by Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, who suggested that any withdrawal agreement would have to pass through primary legislation (i.e. an Act of Parliament) before its implementation. The original Withdrawal Bill would have conferred powers to government ministers directly in order to implement the withdrawal agreement without interference from Parliament.
Ministers contested that the government could not accept the amendment as it would not provide enough flexibility for it to implement the agreement before exit day (assuming that this will be March 2019). Dominic Raab of the Ministry of Justice said in the debate on Wednesday that such an amendment “would risk materially damaging responsible preparations for exit.” Despite their reluctance, the government did try to make a compromise with MPs by suggesting that Parliament could have a ‘meaningful vote’ before the agreement came into force.
Alas, this would not suffice and Mr Grieve declared that this was “too late.” Thus the amendment was put to a vote later that day, in which the government was defeated by 309 to 305. The effect of this vote is that it would “remove the proposed capacity of Ministers in Clause 9 to modify and amend the [Bill] itself via delegated powers.”
The legal technicalities may be boring to some, but the implications certainly are not. The government’s defeat on this amendment to the Withdrawal Bill is a reflection of the other battle taking place with Brexit: that between Parliament and the executive. But this constitutional tug-of-war has not been a frustration to the government alone. Following the debate, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries said on Twitter that her fellow MPs “should be deselected and never allowed to stand as a Tory MP, ever again.” The Daily Mail also had its say, publishing pictures on its front page of each of the twelve Conservative MPs who voted against the government with the title ‘Proud of Yourselves?’
But for those Brexiteers who expressed such contempt for the events which took place in the Commons this is, in essence, what they asked for when they voted to leave the EU. They claimed that leaving the bloc would return to Parliament its sovereign ability to reign as the supreme law-making body in the UK. Thus the amendments which have been proposed for the Withdrawal Bill, as well as Parliament’s vote on Article 50, are simply evidence of Parliament taking back control.
What the vote also shows is that the constitutional battle between the government and Parliament is likely to be as intense as the ongoing struggle between the government and the EU Commission. MPs will no doubt continue to claw back powers from the executive, including amendments to Clause 9 and amendments to the so-called ‘Henry VIII’ powers, some of which the government have accepted (more on this here). Another amendment to be debated next week will concern the exact date upon which the UK will exit the EU, another contentious part of the Bill.
Nothing about Brexit was going to be straightforward. It is an unprecedented step which the UK is taking and will undoubtedly give rise to a plethora of complexities, both foreseen and unforeseen. But the conflicts between the executive and Parliament are as necessary as they are tedious. So if the Brexiteers are unhappy, then they should have been careful what they wished for.