During 2019, the Brexit process has radically changed the dynamics between the prime minister and the House of Commons. Normally the United Kingdom’s government, led by the prime minister and her Cabinet, provides leadership, and drives and implements policy while Parliament exercises control over the government by scrutinising its actions and holding it to account. This is a carefully balanced relationship, although a government with a strong majority can dominate decision making in the House of Commons.
For a government with the slimmest of working majorities, and now no majority at all, piloting Brexit through Parliament has until now proved unachievable. “Impasse” and “kicking the can down the road” have become the most overworked expressions of the Brexit process, but they aptly describe the deadlock, delays and divergent views that have characterised it. The Brexit timeline is well known but briefly, the United Kingdom began the withdrawal process (known as triggering Article 50) on 29 March 2017 and was set to leave the European Union on 29 March 2019, a date enshrined in law by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. In the interim, Theresa May, then prime minister, negotiated with the European Union a withdrawal agreement and a non-legally binding political declaration on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
The European Union repeatedly made it clear that the withdrawal agreement was not open for renegotiation but MPs in the House of Commons rejected it three times overwhelmingly. The first rejection in January 2019 saw the government defeated by a historic 230 votes. Then over three days between 12 and 14 March, MPs not only rejected the withdrawal agreement again by 149 votes, but voted against leaving the European Union without a deal, and resoundingly supported an extension to the withdrawal date to 30 June. Criticising Parliament for avoiding making a choice and simply saying what it did not want May was forced to request an extension to avoid the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a deal, and the European Council offered a delay until 12 April (or 22 May if the withdrawal deal was approved).
Then, in an imaginative response which set a modern constitutional precedent, Parliament attempted to take over the driving seat and assert control over the Brexit process. Normally, the government controls the House of Commons timetable, but Sir Oliver Letwin MP proposed that MPs take control of Commons business on specified days through a mechanism known as business motions which can be used to change the timetable. David Lidington, then Minister for the Cabinet Office, said that the Letwin proposal “would overturn the balance between Parliament and the Government” but it was successful, enabling two things to happen: MPs would have the chance to vote on their preferred alternatives to the government’s withdrawal deal (known as indicative votes), and Yvette Cooper MP could introduce draft legislation seeking to prevent a no-deal exit on 12 April. A proactive, assertive House of Commons was stepping on to the government’s turf of steering policy and negotiation.
The MPs aimed to find consensus but when MPs voted on 27 March and 1 April, none of the options secured a majority. In any event, the votes were not legally binding so would not have committed the government to adopting the outcome. On 29 March, MPs rejected the government’s withdrawal agreement for a third time and Theresa May said that she feared that they were “reaching the limits of this process in this House.”
With the risk of a no-deal exit on 12 April increasing, the Commons passed Yvette Cooper’s legislative proposals by one vote (despite one MP’s misgivings about what he perceived as their “constitutional flaws”) and subsequently came into force as the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019. Effectively, this enabled the Commons to require the prime minister to request an extension to avert a no-deal exit, although May actually requested an extension three days before the Act came into force. On 11 Mrs May and the European Council agreed a delay until 31 October.
As Theresa May argued before the Commons on 11 April 2019, this is not normal British politics. On 24 May, she resigned as prime minister and was succeeded by Boris Johnson. The Brexit process has created a battle of wills between government and Parliament which distorts the delicate balance between them, and subsequent events have shown that over-assertiveness on either side risks damaging conflict.
Featured image credit: “The iconic british old red telephone box with the Big Ben at background in the center of London” by ZGPhotography. Royalty free via Shutterstock.