In Rude Health!
Friday 25th January 2019: Britain’s constitution is working as it should, without the riots of the French or the shut down of the US, says John Baron MP*. But for that to continue, the Commons must recognise the limits of its role – and the ‘backstop’ must have its own Article 50.
A fortnight ago, the House of Commons buried the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement. In the remain-dominated House of Commons the appetite for a deal with the EU is strong.
I too want a good deal. But I would prefer WTO terms to a bad one – terms by which we profitably trade with the rest of the world.
What we now see is a re-heated version of ‘Project Fear’ about the consequences of leaving the EU on no deal/WTO terms. That backfired badly during the referendum campaign and saw the Bank of England obliged to apologise for its misjudged warnings. The present situation resembles a three-dimensional game of chess with the various parties involved having to consider carefully their next move for fear of the consequences.
Meanwhile the time constraint is pressing – of which I was aware when I pushed my own amendment on 15th January to stop the potentially indefinite backstop. Though that was defeated, we possibly now see movement across the Channel and the omens look better.
For many MPs on the back benches, it is the indefinite and one-sided nature of the backstop that prevents us supporting the Prime Minister’s deal. Other elements of the transition period, though uncomfortable, can be endured because its time-limited nature means there is light at the end of the tunnel.
But the opposite is true of the backstop and, worse still, it requires EU acquiescence to leave it. Given the experience of the negotiations over the past two years, belief that the EU would not use such power to its advantage over the UK is in short supply on the back benches.
I have therefore tabled amendments for next Tuesday’s debate which relate to the backstop. They attempt (i) to remove it altogether from the Withdrawal Agreement (amendment K), or (ii) to limit it to no more than six months (amendment L), or (iii) include a unilateral right for the UK to exit it (amendment M). I have suggested to Colleagues that they ‘buckle up’ as there could be some turbulence!
If nothing else these amendments will, if selected by the Speaker, test the will of Parliament as regards to the centrality of the backstop. If one is accepted by a majority, that may well plot a course for the Government and Prime Minister towards a successful deal.
Those who claim any alteration to the Withdrawal Agreement is impossible forget that the EU has a rich history of eleventh-hour compromises. They also ignore the clear faultlines breaking cover amongst the 27 as regards a no-deal Brexit – from the Polish and German Governments to the French farmers’ unions.
Compromise works both ways, and the British Government should remember that it is an equal partner in these negotiations, not a supplicant.
There are of course a large number of other amendments on the Order Paper for Tuesday’s debate, some of which aim to wrest control of House of Commons business from the Government. As a great believer in Parliament, and in the essential role it plays in holding the Government to account, I do not judge these to be the right way forward.
Parliament is there to prevent the excesses of the Government, but it is not there to be the Government. Our system of government is based on the defined roles of the executive, the legislative and the judiciary – the legislative should not become the executive.
In any case, if MPs are intending to undermine long-established and well-grounded Parliamentary procedure because they fear a ‘no deal’ Brexit, they should first have the humility to recognise that this is in fact the default consequence of their own votes to trigger Article 50 in March 2017 with a majority of 384.
The Government is not ‘foisting’ no deal on MPs: this they have voted for themselves. The remainers supporting these attempts seem not only to believe people did not know what they were voting for in the referendum, but also now seem to suggest MPs did not know what they were voting for when triggering Article 50.
I was fully aware of what I voted for in supporting the triggering of Article 50. The UK must leave the EU on 29th March – any delay would be unacceptable and would break faith with the over 17 million people who voted to leave the European Union.
Finally, despite criticism from a minority about the state of our politics, the fact is that Britain’s constitution is largely working as it should in accommodating robust views, strongly held. By contrast, an increase in the cost in fuel has led to mass protests and even loss of life on French streets, and a political crisis has shut down the Federal Government across the United States.
Meanwhile Parliament, which during the New Labour years was sidelined and ignored, is once again central to the political process and is engaging with the great issues of the day. If nothing else, this is reason for that minority of glumbuckets to be cheerful.
*John Baron is the Member of Parliament for Basildon and Billericay and was a member of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee from 2010-17. Before entering parliament, he served in The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, and later worked in finance in the City of London. He is the author of Hard Choices: Britain’s Foreign Policy for a Dangerous World (Politeia, 2017).