LONDON – It could be said that Tuesday was the day the government lost control over Brexit and parliament claimed it. In one of the most dramatic days in the House of Commons since before the Iraq war, British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a series of defeats before the debate over her Brexit deal even got started.
There’s some justice in the shift of power from executive to legislature. May had tried her best to squash parliament’s role throughout the Brexit process. It took a Supreme Court case to get a parliamentary vote on triggering Article 50 — the starting gun on its EU departure. It took a crusading Conservative lawmaker to give parliament a “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal.
The government tried to prevent amendments once a Brexit deal came to a vote (they’re now allowed). It refused a parliamentary demand to turn over the legal advice it received on the agreement with Brussels. It even refused to tell MPs whether Article 50 could be unilaterally revoked and sought to prevent Europe’s highest court from hearing a case to decide that.
Parliament has had enough. On Tuesday, the executive lost a vote on its refusal to publish the legal advice; it then became the first U.K. government in history to be held in contempt of parliament. In another defeat, the EU’s highest court has indicated it will allow Brexit to be canceled if that’s what the U.K. wants.
Most important, an amendment from europhile MP Dominic Grieve means lawmakers will be free to table and vote on their own alternative Brexit plans should May’s deal lose next week’s parliamentary vote. That means they could seek a softer withdrawal or try to stop Brexit entirely.
Many are celebrating this restoration of the Commons’ luster. Journalist Ian Dunt wrote that “now, finally, this poisonous spell of populism channeled through an over-powerful executive seems to have been broken.”
Yet that’s also the troubling part. Imagine a car where different people are fighting for the steering wheel. That’s what’s happening in Brexit Britain right now. For much of the past two years, lawmakers have been largely confined to the back seat. Now an agreement has been delivered, they’ve managed to clamber into the front to wrestle with May. Some want to put the car into reverse, others want to change course entirely and a few want to drive off a cliff.
Nor has parliament’s wisdom always proved reliable. It voted overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50. That was before anyone had thought through the ramifications; no preparations had been made for contingencies like leaving without a deal. If the current Brexit situation is hell, then the premature triggering of Article 50 helped get us there.
At least lawmakers are wiser now. Grieve’s intervention may have just taken no-deal off the table, as far as that’s possible. Brexiters who support a no-deal exit note that his motion is non-binding anyhow. Even so, it would take a brave government to ignore the will of parliament on so fundamental a question, especially given the predictions of economic harm.
One tactical outcome from the Grieve amendment is that May will try to use the increased threat of a softer Brexit or no Brexit at all to whip her hard-line europhobes into supporting her own deal. Most expect her to lose the first vote, nonetheless.
But whomever has control — parliament’s roundheads or May’s cavaliers — they still have to deal with reality, and Brussels. The EU says negotiations are closed. And even it it does change its mind, the one workable looking Plan B to emerge from May’s party has plenty of obstacles too. Lawmakers can hit the pause button by requesting an extension of Article 50. But the EU is only likely to grant that in the event of a second referendum or a new U.K. election.
However at odds parliament is with the government, it can’t stay that way for long. Unlike the Lockean constitution in the U.S., with its clear separation of powers, Britain’s legislature and executive are intertwined. The head of government sits at the center of the Commons and the country only moves forward with government leading. Whether it’s May or another prime minister, they’ll have to find a way through this mess together.
Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg.