The Guardian view on MPs and Brexit: no hid­ing place for the facts

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion/Finance/The Guardian View - Edi­to­rial

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

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