Brexit_WEB

The issue of whether the government would allow Parliament a vote (it seems as though it will) and whether any such vote will be meaningful (it won’t be) has dominated Brexit coverage since the referendum. This has been a distraction from the main event – not least because the EU Withdrawal Act makes any vote meaningless. When the Conservatives and Labour whipped their MPs in the same direction, they whipped away Parliament’s power and gave it to the EU and UK government.

The place where Parliament has actually had most success is not  taking back control of what’s happening, but actually finding out what’s going on (or not going on). This was symbolised by the apparent success last month in forcing the government to release the 58 studies about the likely economic impact of Brexit.

MPs and the public first got wind of these ‘studies’ back in the summer when David Davis mentioned them on the Andrew Marr show: (see p.11 of this transcript):

“That  data’s  being  gathered,  we’ve  got  50,  nearly  60  sector  analyses already done, we’ve got planning work going on in the customs,  we’ve  got  planning  work  going  on  22  other  issues  which  are  critical,  127  all  told.  All  of  them  have  got  to  be  grounded  before  we come to a conclusion what it looks like.”

Repeated FOI requests for the studies by the MEP Molly Scott Cato and others failed, as the government appeared to argue it would undermine their ability to negotiate (and there are certain protections under FOI that might support this rather bland statement).

In November, Labour then used an obscure piece of parliamentary procedure to force the government into releasing its Brexit impact studies, as this blog by Andrew Defty explains. Using a motion for a return, Labour ‘transformed a non-binding opposition day motion into a binding resolution of the House’ (see more on these here in this 1999 report Section 3 (ii)).

However, the government then responded with an admission (or confession) that the ’50’ or ‘60’ – or possibly 127 – pieces of analysis are not what they seem: “As we have made clear, it is not the case that 58 sectoral impact assessments exist”. The statement went on to explain that the papers are a

“… wide mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis, contained in a range of documents developed at different times since the referendum. It examines the nature of activity in the sectors, how trade is conducted with the EU currently in these sectors and, in many cases, considers the alternatives after we leave as well as looking at existing precedents. This analysis ranges from the very high level overarching analysis to sometimes much more granular level analysis of certain product lines in specific sectors.”

At some point, a discerning reader could conclude, Davis was being ‘economical with the truth’. Either the impact studies exist (or existed) in some form, or they didn’t. It now seems that ‘Brexit studies’ doesn’t mean, as it were, ‘Brexit studies’. And whatever they are, they won’t be fully released (though the ultimate power may lie with the DExEU committee here).

Back in July of 2016, when Brexit meant Brexit and Theresa May had a majority, her new government asserted that it was for government to declare and trigger article 50 and then conduct the subsequent negotiations in a confidential way. The government were keen to keep things closed and secret. There was to be, famously, no running commentary.

In September 2016 Davis, the new secretary of state for Brexit, made it clear the limitations of any openness, saying he would be “as open as I can. More accurately, the Government will be as open as they can”. He argued that it may be ‘the most complicated negotiation ever’ but there would be ‘debates, reports by Select Committees and hearings’ and he promised:

“We will certainly match and, hopefully, improve on what the European Parliament sees. At given times, that will be tactical, I am afraid. I do not want to be boring about it, but this is likely to be the most complicated negotiation of modern times. It may be the most complicated negotiation of all times. By comparison, Schleswig-Holstein is an O-level question. We will not always be entirely free agents, but we will be as open as we can be.”

He also spoke of the impossibility of secrecy:

“… I will seek to be as open as is possible…Even were I to decide that I was going to behave like Rasputin and keep it all entirely secret, I would fail. It would not be possible… other Governments would do it. In the Government’s own interest, it is a better idea to be more open than is perhaps traditional, but always subject to the overriding point that we cannot pre-empt the negotiation.”

 In October the report from the House of Lords EU Select Committee took a rather stronger view of what right Parliament had (2016).

“One of the key objectives of parliamentary scrutiny is to ensure transparency – to cast a light on the actions of the executive. It is, we suggest, essential that many elements of the forthcoming negotiations – for instance, negotiations affecting acquired rights, or future cooperation between UK and EU police forces—should be conducted transparently.” (House of Lords EU 2016a).

Since then, Parliament has been the key to shining more light on Brexit. The sheer volume of investigation and scrutiny can be seen below:

Scrutiny of Brexit by Parliament, 13 July 2016 – 19 June 2017

Written questions 490
Written answers 819
Select committee inquiries begun 55

(House of Commons/UK Parliament: IFG)

 

Select committees launched more than 55 inquiries into various aspects of Brexit, though some were curtailed by the June 2017 General Election. In December 2016, the Liaison Committee was the first body to subject the Prime Minister to detailed scrutiny of the government position on Brexit revealing, perhaps inadvertently, that her approach was one of secrecy and that she appeared unaware of how exactly article 50 functioned. In one day in November 2017, in a ‘bumper day for select committees’, six select committees questioned different officials and Ministers on various aspects of Brexit. In March 2017, the new DExEU Select Committee scrutinised the government’s objectives and positions and questioned Davis, who confessed there had been no preparation for what would happen in the event of Brexit talks breaking down and that any financial settlement will favour the EU. The debate around the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) bill from January to March 2017, triggered by the Supreme Court ruling, also gave a focus to discussion and debate and revealed more about the prospects and government plans.

All this pressure has given us far more information that the government seemed prepared to give before. We have had two major Prime Ministerial speeches and one, heavy, evidence session (with another due December 20 this year). Ministers have appeared and explained (and sometimes contradicted each other) regularly. We’ve also had a Brexit White Paper (that, you’ll be pleased to know, gave us all 14 weeks holiday a year).

Brexit has not, of course, been fully opened up by Parliament. The government refused some of the more transparent options, such as a cross-party approach via Royal Commission, in 2016 and again in 2017. The January White Paper was described as ‘largely devoid of content because the UK government’s concern about negotiating secrecy’ and offered ‘as few concrete positions as it is possible to imagine’. The government also resisted Parliamentary motions to mandate regular updates on Brexit to Parliament in the future.

Nevertheless, Parliament was key in forcing appearances. Far more is known than before, and benchmarks have been lain down with the legislature’s action leading to far greater understanding of the government’s views and preparation. And here is what has proved so damaging: the lack of preparation. Westminster’s digging and pressure have revealed not what has been done but what has not been done. There is no hidden grand plan, but a void at the heart of government thinking on the most important event in the last 60 years. And this is what the ‘58’ studies symbolise. As General Montgomery once said: “I have not been told of any master plan and I must therefore assume there was none.”

See my paper ‘Brexit and Open Government in the UK: 11 Months of May’ (June 19, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2988952

As the Exiting the European Union Committee (once more) debates the 58 Brexit Studies with David Davis, two Birkbeck Politics academics reflect on what the struggle between Westminster and the government tells us about power, Parliament and Brexit.

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Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos

Governing is (perhaps) not what it used to be but there are some things that have not changed much.  The possession and significance of privileged information is one of them.  Distributing and (more broadly) utilising sensitive information is part of the tools of government.  That is why one of the most significant concerns of parliaments in democracies is getting hold of this information.  Without it, there is no way they can hold government to account.  But even in the absence of this oversight, the credibility of a government’s position is at stake. Without credible information (indeed, without information that is known to be credible), how can a government formulate good public policy?  This was at the heart of the previous coalition government’s now forgotten review of the balance of competences between the UK and the EU. A key reason why it was barely mentioned after its conclusion was the fact that it did not fit the narrative that the Conservatives wanted to construct in relation to the UK’s membership of the EU. The credibility of government-held information is more important in the context of controversial negotiations like the one that the UK government is currently conducting with the European Union (first) in relation to the terms of the UK’s exit.  A large part of the controversy that surrounds the referendum is built on the systematic use of lies by supporters (including ministers) of the winning side.  Now that they must deliver on their promises, the fundamental weakness of their arguments is beginning to show.  This is demonstrated, for example, by the government’s acceptance of the EU’s preferred sequencing and the reported acceptance of the EU’s calculation of the UK’s legacy debts (usually and misleadingly referred to as ‘exit bill’), i.e. the expected costs to which the UK has agreed whilst still a member of the EU.

Until the earth-shattering news of Meghan Markle’s engagement to Prince Harry, the debate inside the UK on the ongoing Brexit negotiations was dominated by the thorny issue of Northern Ireland and the impact of Brexit on the British economy.  The British Parliament managed to extract from the government a commitment to share hitherto unpublished sectoral studies that assess Brexit’s likely impact on several sectors of the British economy.  The latest twist in this sorry and lengthy saga – which highlights, instead of concealing, as the UK’s Conservative government intended, the weakness of its negotiating position – saw the government effectively refuse to reveal this information to British parliamentarians.

This may come as a surprise to many but it is perfectly in keeping with both the country’s enduring constitutional settlement and the Conservative Party’s – especially its loudly Eurosceptic wing’s – duplicitous stance on the issue of parliamentary sovereignty.  Although Westminster is frequently referred to as ‘the mother of all parliaments’ one must be careful for the system is neither balanced, nor is it characterised by the centrality of Houses of Commons and Lords that its title suggests.  As early as 1867, Walter Bagehot was observing that ‘[i]n England a strong Cabinet can obtain the concurrence of the legislature in all acts which facilitate its administration; it is itself, so to say, the legislature’.  He noted that ‘[t]he efficient secret of the English Constitution may be described as the close union, the nearly complete fusion, of the executive and legislative powers’.  One of the ways in which this fusion is achieved is highlighted in RHS Crossman’s famous introduction to the 1963 edition of Bagehot’s classic book:

Once elected by the Commons the Prime Minister exerts power greater than those of any American President […] In this new middle class regime, in fact, the nation is run by a board of control headed by a powerful managing director’.

But even if one ignores the real and enduring balance of power between the British executive and legislature, it would be unreasonable to expect a UK government to bend to the will of parliament on matters European given the historical precedent.  As I have argued in detail in an article in the Journal of Common Market Studies, acting in a comparable context in the early 1990s again under a Conservative government with a slim majority in the House of Commons, an arrangement put in place in 1980 obliged the government of the day to (normally) refrain from giving its assent to EU legislative proposals as long as the parliamentary scrutiny of these proposals in Westminster had not been completed.  Crucially though, the government retained the right to decide that due to ‘special reasons’ – agreement at the level of the EU need not be withheld (House of Commons Debates, vol. 991, 30 October 1980, col. 843). It was – and is – up to the government of the day to make that decision and all they need to do is simply explain these reasons in Parliament.  In other words, one should not be surprised by the current government’s stance. It is consistent with the essence of the UK’s constitutional arrangement as well as the ruling party’s tradition, no matter what Conservative Eurosceptics said when they were not running the country.  If Brexit is about ‘taking back control’, why not share with our elected representatives these impact studies?

In reality, the current government’s real problem lies in either a) the really bad news that these studies would reveal to the British public or b) the weakness of way in which these studies were constructed.  Either way, the government’s dogged fight to conceal them is much more revealing than they want it to be.

Follow the author and Birkbeck’s Politics Department on Twitter: @DGDimitrakop @bbkpolitics

Waterloo Bridge Towards Palace of Westminster

In episode 38 of our politics podcast, Dr Dermot Hodson and Dr Ben Worthy reflect on some emerging data about the June 2017 General Election and on the instability in Ireland’s supply and confidence arrangements-listen in here https://soundcloud.com/british-politics-centre/westminster-watch-episode-38-elections-supplies-and-confidence-with-a-brexit-coda

You can read the paper we discuss (and, of course, draw your own conclusions) here:

Mellon, Jonathan and Evans, Geoffrey and Fieldhouse, Edward A. and Green, Jane and Prosser, Christopher, ‘Brexit or Corbyn? Campaign and Inter-Election Vote Switching in the 2017 UK General Election’ (November 17, 2017). Available to download at https://ssrn.com/abstract=3073203

Women-MPs

In this episode of Birkbeck Voices, we’re joined by Sarah Childs, Professor of Politics and Gender at Birkbeck.

Professor Childs discusses the benefits of equal gender opportunity in parliament, the current system of quotas for women in politics and a report she recently put forward that recommends a change to the law on job-sharing for MPs. She has worked extensively on representation theory and policies surrounding gender politics and currently advises the new Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion(www.parliament.uk/business/committ…ation-inclusion/).

Listen here https://soundcloud.com/birkbeck-podcasts/the-rise-of-the-female-politician-how-gender-equality-is-permeating-parliament

Read this recent piece by Sarah Childs, Jessica Smith and Meryl Kenny on the 2017 election ‘Women and the 2017 Parliament: scratching, rather than smashing the glass ceiling’ http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/women-and-the-2017-parliament/