The government is floundering. MPs need a vote on Brexit terms before Article 50.
Parliament needs to vote on the UK’s opening negotiating position ahead of Article 50 being invoked.
Why? Because in the absence of any meaningful strategy or approach in government, Parliament itself needs to step in and do the job it is there to do – scrutinise government policy, vote on it and represent the interests of all those who elected them.
The government is right to argue that it should not provide a running commentary on future negotiations. But something as fundamental as whether we are to remain in the single market or not is not a mere commentary, but a critical decision that will shape the future of the country forever.
For a government committed to empowering the people, it must level with the public about what it is seeking from the Article 50 talks and, most crucially, what impact it is likely to have on the day-to-day lives of everyone across the country.
It should then give the people’s representatives the opportunity to decide if that is what their voters want.
For all the fanfare around its announcements last week, the government has pledged to trigger Article 50 by March next year at the latest despite us already knowing that it was likely to be early 2017; and to introduce a Great Repeal Bill which, despite its grand title, amounts to very little.
As Mark Elliott, Professor of Public Law at the University of Cambridge and a Legal Adviser to House of Lords Constitution Committee tweeted yesterday:
Becoming clear Great Repeal Bill is smoke & mirrors exercise, giving spurious impression of meaningful parliamentary involvement in #Brexit
— Mark Elliott (@ProfMarkElliott) October 10, 2016
And what of the Single Market? On more than one occasion yesterday David Davis was asked by MPs if he favoured remaining in the market. For someone previously seen as a straight talker, the gobbledegook he spoke was plain to all, largely because the government doesn’t have a clue.
At one end of the spectrum there is Iain Duncan-Smith, the hardline Brexiter whose mission in life now seems to be to be as rude to people as possible, having yesterday dubbed Shadow Brexit Secretary and the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, as a ‘second rate lawyer’.
Speaking on the Sunday Politics show over the weekend he made clear that he did not want to remain in the Single Market.
Then there is the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who just days after the referendum wrote in his then column for the Telegraph that
‘there will continue to be free trade, and access to the single market’.
Add this to the manifesto commitment upon which every Conservative MP was elected that declared ‘we are clear about what we want from Europe. We say: yes to the Single Market’, and you get the picture. Confusion reigns supreme.
This could perhaps have something to do with the fact that withdrawing from the single market would require some difficult truths to be told by ministers.
The news in the Times today that the Treasury has warned that withdrawing from the Single Market could cost the UK £66 billion a year is a bombshell that ministers must be held accountable for and explain what that would mean for jobs.
And before anyone accuses the Treasury of ‘doing down the UK’, this is a figure from the very same government of which messers Davis, Fox and Johnson are now a part. If they don’t like it, will they quit? I doubt it.
But it is not just the single market that gives cause for proper parliamentary scrutiny.
Where is the scrutiny of the promises made by the leave campaign to invest £350 million of extra money a week into the NHS? Likewise, on immigration, ministers are all over the place, talking the talk of the UK being an open and inclusive nation on the one hand, while on the other suggesting that companies should publish the number of foreign workers they hold, (only later to be peddled back on).
And now we have the LSE alleging that the Foreign Office is banning academics from abroad from advising it on Brexit.
This is not about overturning the will of the people. We will leave the EU. But no one can confidently stand up and say they know why everyone who voted to leave did so.
It is about democracy: empowering the parliament the Brexiteers claim to champion.
The reality is that what gets negotiated over the next two years will stick forever. A failure to properly allow parliament, the people’s representatives, to vote on the opening terms of discussion would be a disgrace.
Ed Jacobs is contributing editor to Left Foot ForwardLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.