The Guardian view on MPs and Brexit: no hiding place for the facts
Westminster’s world of urgent questions, humble addresses, contempt of parliament and points of order leaves most people cold. Such procedural devices can appear arcane and irrelevant. When MPs give the impression of being fired up over them, as they did on Tuesday, it is tempting to conclude that politics is wilfully deepening the gulf that is felt to separate it from the nation.
That would be absolutely the wrong response to the Commons argument about the so-called Brexit impact reports. Once you get past the recondite terminology, this was a battle about real power. It was a contest about whether ministers or parliament have their hands on the wheel over Brexit policy. It was also a stand-off about whether the public has a right to know what Brexit involves. Underlying these already large issues was an even larger one. How serious is the damage that Brexit may inflict on livelihoods, the ties that bind us together and Britain’s standing?
The importance of that last question explains why the issues that absorbed MPs on Tuesday are important. The immediate dispute was about MPs’ access to 58 sectoral reports that have been carried out across Whitehall into the impact of Brexit. When the existence of these reports became known in June, MPs tried to get them published, but were rebuffed. On 1 November, MPs voted without opposition, with Conservatives abstaining, to instruct ministers to provide the reports to the Brexit select committee. This week, Mr Davis provided some but not all of the information in the reports. Tuesday’s clashes were about getting Mr Davis to do what he had been told to do.
This is not a trivial matter. On the contrary. Ultimately it poses the question of whether parliament is a debating society, where motions are mere expressions of opinion like newspaper leaders, or a legislature, to which ministers are accountable and which they must obey. It has always been axiomatic to the British system that parliament is the latter, not the former. That’s why Gina Miller rightly went to court to force parliament to own the article 50 decision. It’s why MPs and peers are demanding a proper vote on the terms. And now it’s why there is a battle over the impact reports. It is particularly embarrassing for the government that Mr Davis, who railed against executive power from the backbenches, now defends that power from the frontbench.
The row highlights two dangerous claims. One is Mr Davis’s refusal to carry out the 1 November motion to the letter. This may open him to the contempt of parliament charge that the Speaker appears open to debating. As such it is a test
case for the rights of parliament’s select committees as well as MPs a whole. If the government wants to restrict the amount of information it is required to publish, it should have tried to amend the 1 November motion. Given the importance that Brexiters claim to attach to parliamentary sovereignty, this is an open and shut case of credibility and even legality.
The second claim is equally important. Brexit is the biggest decision that Britain has had to take since 1939. It is ultimately parliament’s decision. To take it, parliament needs to know the terms of any deal, and the impact that will follow. Hiding those facts from parliament and the public undermines the responsibility that rests on MPs. There are very few facts in this argument that need to remain hidden. And there are many that need to be exposed, from the resilience of banks to the impact on the Irish border.
British voters made a decision in June 2016. But they did not lay down the terms on which Brexit would take place. This government has spent 16 months committed to foolish, disruptive and dangerous versions of Brexit of its own selection, on which neither the voters nor parliament have made a decision. The recklessness of the May government’s approach, refusing to consider forms of leaving that would better protect jobs and the economy, is impossible to ignore. Refusing to tell the truth to MPs is part and parcel of an approach that has failed and should end.
David Davis. ‘It is particularly embarrassing for the government that Mr Davis, who railed against executive power from the backbenches, now defends that power from the frontbench.’ Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AP