I watched most of the Opposition day debate on parliamentary scrutiny of the Government's negotiating strategy for leaving the EU (link to follow) – led by opposition spokesman Kier Starmer.
It was an "excellent debate" according to David Jones, the Minister of State for Brexit, winding up for the government – with not a hint or irony anywhere in sight. Here was a parliament which as a collective had for 43 years supported UK membership in first the EEC, the EC and the EU, with a majority of both Houses still in favour.
Yet these born-again "democrats" are now waxing indignant about the Government's refusal to give them a vote on its negotiating strategy, prior to lodging its Article 50 notification with Brussels. We thus heard much talk of parliamentary sovereignty but, as Pete points out
, the sovereignty is not theirs but ours.
In terms, it was a referendum that pushed the Government into leaving the EU. The deal is between the people and Government, with Parliament largely a bystander. And now Parliament wants to play a dominant role in determining how we should leave.
Apart from lacking the democratic credentials, however, MPs face another hurdle before they can lay claim to being champions of the people. As we have seen so many times before, scarcely any of the MPs in this debate gave any sign of really understanding the issues, or demonstrating sufficient depth of knowledge that would enable the insitution effectively to scrutinise the Government.
We had, for instance, Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North, telling us he was not in the habit of quoting the Daily Mail
, but he went on to do so anyway, citing with approval an otherwise "misleading and confused editorial
", which would have us believe:
… what the public voted for was simple: to regain control of our borders in order to end mass immigration; reclaim control of our laws; and stop sending billions of pounds to Brussels. None of this is possible inside the single market - which requires the free movement of workers.
Interestingly, Gardiner didn't complete the full quote, which added to this notional requirement: "full adherence to the diktats of the European Court of Justice and a vast annual membership fee".
Yet, on the basis of what he did quote, Gardiner suggested that, if the Government believes that, "the question must be asked why they will not admit that they have ruled out maintaining the access we currently enjoy to the single market".
It was left for David Jones in his winding up thus to say that: "we do not accept that there is a binary trade-off between border control and access to the single market for goods and services". We are, he said: "aiming for the best deal for Britain".
With no detail to support this assertion, though, the claim was left hanging – but it does point to the supposition that the Government believes freedom of movement is negotiable. A view floated by Philip Hammond
is now becoming a consistent refrain.
In a debate where MPs were obsessed with the Single Market, though – mentioning it no less than 136 times – only one MP, Mike Wood (Dudley South) – mentioned the EEA by its initials.
Bill Cash, however, spelled it out in full, first arguing that we cannot both be in the single market and repeal the European Communities Act, "whose laws are part of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice".
Asked by Dominic Grieve about Norway, "a country that participates in the single market without being a member of the European Union", Cash argued that we could not remain in the Single Market because we would remain "within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice"- apparently unaware that the EEA has its own dispute process, centred around the Efta Court.
As to any controls on freedom of movement, this was left to Labour's Emma Reynolds, who had been talking to her constituents in Wolverhampton. But she wrongly informed us that: "within the European Economic Area Norway has an emergency brake on free movement", only then adding: "Lichtenstein has controls over it".
That is as near as we got to any discussion on the Liechtenstein/EEA solution, with the one MP who discussed it relying on "constituents" and getting the detail on Norway completely wrong – although she did manage to say: "there is a spectrum here; there is a space between no free movement and free movement in its entirety".
But then we had Stephen Timms, the Labour MP for East Ham, remarking that a number of speakers "in this very helpful, valuable debate" have suggested that the negotiations should aim, "on the one hand, for barrier-free access to the single market … and, on the other, for us to no longer apply the current free movement rules".
Timms went on to agree with this: it was "the objective we should be setting". And that was quite typical of the tenor of this "very helpful, valuable debate", one where no MP gave the slightest thought to why the House should be trusted but offered every reason why they should not.
It is ironic perhaps that we the people have an ally in government, standing between us an Parliament which would frustrate our wishes, given half a chance – or crash our economy.
The House was thus left to approve a resolution amended by Theresa May, which called on the Prime Minister to ensure that this House is able properly to scrutinise that plan for leaving the EU before Article 50 is invoked, but respected the decision of the people and did not undermine the negotiating position of the Government.
Parliament can scrutinise all it likes, but does not get to interfere with the conduct of the Article 50 negotiations. And that is the only safe way to proceed. The case for greater parliamentary intervention has not been made.