Brexit di­vid­ing United King­dom

Weekend Herald - - World -

Show­down be­tween Par­lia­ment and the Govern­ment over deal

Jill Law­less

in London As Brexit enters its endgame, the big di­vide is not be­tween the United King­dom and the Euro­pean Union, but be­tween Britain’s Govern­ment and its Par­lia­ment.

Since Britain and the EU struck a di­vorce deal late last year, Britain’s ex­ec­u­tive and leg­is­la­ture have been at war, with Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May strug­gling to win Par­lia­ment’s back­ing for the deal ahead of a vote next week, and law­mak­ers bat­tling to grab con­trol of the Brexit process.

A se­ries of heated de­bates and stun­ning govern­ment de­feats has made for high po­lit­i­cal drama — and desta­bilised a coun­try with­out a for­mal writ­ten con­sti­tu­tion, whose democ­racy rests on cen­turies of ac­cu­mu­lated laws, prece­dents and con­ven­tions.

As law­mak­ers held a sec­ond day of ran­corous de­bate on the Brexit deal yes­ter­day, London School of Eco­nomics pro­fes­sor Iain Begg said Britain is “get­ting very close” to a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis.

“It’s pretty clear that if Theresa May loses the vote next week, we don’t ac­tu­ally know what hap­pens next,” Begg said. “And that’s be­yond po­lit­i­cal.”

The di­vorce agree­ment lays out the terms of Britain’s de­par­ture from the EU on March 29 and sets the frame­work for fu­ture re­la­tions. It was sealed by Britain and the EU in Novem­ber — a mile­stone that should have set Britain on the road to an or­derly exit.

But it has dis­pleased both sides of Britain’s Brexit di­vide. Many law­mak­ers who back leav­ing the EU say it leaves the UK teth­ered to the bloc’s rules and un­able to forge an in­de­pen­dent trade pol­icy, while proEuro­peans ar­gue it is in­fe­rior to the fric­tion­less eco­nomic re­la­tion­ship Britain cur­rently en­joys as an EU mem­ber.

May post­poned a vote on the agree­ment in De­cem­ber to avert a crush­ing de­feat, and signs sug­gest the House of Com­mons will re­ject the deal in a resched­uled vote on Tuesday.

An al­ready frac­tious Brexit de­bate turned fever­ish on Thursday when law­mak­ers passed an amend­ment forc­ing the Govern­ment to come back to Par­lia­ment with a new plan within three work­ing days of the deal be­ing re­jected.

Pro-Brexit law­mak­ers said the amend­ment should not have been al­lowed. They ac­cused Com­mons Speaker John Ber­cow, who is sup­posed to be the im­par­tial ar­biter of House rules, of tear­ing up par­lia­men­tary prece­dent and sid­ing with an­tiBrexit leg­is­la­tors.

Con­ser­va­tive leg­is­la­tor Crispin Blunt said it ap­peared to many “that the ref­eree is no longer neu­tral”. An­other Con­ser­va­tive, Adam Hol­loway, ac­cused Ber­cow of hav­ing a rude anti-Brexit sticker on his car. (Ber­cow replied that the car, and the sticker, be­longed to his wife).

Britain’s lively and par­ti­san news­pa­pers also weighed in. “Out of or­der”, blared the Daily Mail, while the tabloid Sun branded Ber­cow the “Speaker of the devil”. Ber­cow was un­re­pen­tant.

“My job is not to be a cheer­leader for the ex­ec­u­tive branch,” he said. “My job is to stand up for the rights of the House of Com­mons.”

Un­for­tu­nately for con­sti­tu­tional clar­ity, ex­perts say both Ber­cow and his de­trac­tors have a point. As the ul­ti­mate au­thor­ity in the House of Com­mons, the Speaker had the power to al­low a vote on an amend­ment to the Govern­ment’s busi­ness mo­tion. But in do­ing so, he ig­nored both prece­dent and the ad­vice of par­lia­men­tary staff.

The in­ci­dent was the lat­est in a se­ries of power strug­gles be­tween the ex­ec­u­tive and the leg­is­la­ture over Brexit. Af­ter Britons voted in a 2016 ref­er­en­dum to leave the EU, May’s Govern­ment tried to trig­ger the for­mal exit process with­out a vote in Par­lia­ment. Af­ter a le­gal bat­tle, the Supreme Court ruled that law­mak­ers must be con­sulted.

Since then, the Govern­ment and Par­lia­ment have feuded about who is driv­ing the Brexit car. Law­mak­ers’ po­si­tion was strength­ened when May lost her par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity in an ill-ad­vised snap elec­tion in 2017.

“We are see­ing pretty open ten­sion be­tween Par­lia­ment and Govern­ment, and a Par­lia­ment that is will­ing to be quite as­sertive,” said Alice Lilly, a se­nior re­searcher at the In­sti­tute for Govern­ment think­tank. “Where that will go from here, who knows?”

To com­pli­cate mat­ters, both Par­lia­ment and May’s Con­ser­va­tive Ad­min­is­tra­tion are split down the mid­dle over Brexit.

A ma­jor­ity of law­mak­ers op­pose a no-deal Brexit, which would im­pose bar­ri­ers to trade with the EU, po­ten­tially trig­ger­ing grid­lock at ports, short­ages of goods and volatile pub­lic anger.

But there is no agree­ment on what path to take in­stead. The 650 mem­bers of Par­lia­ment in­clude 200 or more back­ers of May’s deal, 100 or so sup­port­ers of a no-deal Brexit, mul­ti­ple ad­vo­cates of a “soft Brexit” that keeps Britain close to the EU, and a faction ar­gu­ing for a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum.

“We hear re­peat­edly that Par­lia­ment is not go­ing to al­low a no-deal Brexit, but the con­sti­tu­tional ques­tion that then comes up is: How?” Begg said.

“There doesn’t seem to be a ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment for any of the avail­able mod­els for get­ting out of this predica­ment.”

If May’s deal is de­feated next week, Par­lia­ment may get its chance to take con­trol. It does not have much time. Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29 — deal or no deal.

“At some point Govern­ment and Par­lia­ment are go­ing to have to reach some kind of con­sen­sus,” Lilly said. “There is a tick­ing clock, so there is a real sense of ur­gency around this.”

Photo / AP

Theresa May is strug­gling to win back­ing for her deal ahead of the vote next week.

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