Review of Parliament

The Review | Published November 07 2018

Parliamentary Review Foreword

By The Parliamentary Review

A game of Chequers

On Sunday, July 8, Britain was awash with sunshine and optimism. England football fans were preparing for their first world cup semi-final in nearly thirty years, while some Scots were hurriedly buying the chequered shirts and flags of England’s opponents, Croatia. And the weather, the hottest summer since the seventies, was keeping everyone in good spirits. In other words, it was the perfect time for a political crisis.

While Gareth Southgate’s team spent their Saturday doing battle with Sweden, Theresa May’s spent theirs battling each other. Late on Sunday evening, after another day of disagreements, the results of the crucial cabinet meeting at Chequers (the prime minister’s grace and favour country residence) began to materialise. The most significant of these was the resignation of David Davis as secretary of state for exiting the European Union.

Mr Davis found himself unable to support a proposal that would see the UK maintain a common rulebook with the EU for all goods. This would mean a co-operative arrangement with EU regulators and very little room for divergence.

The white paper that emerged after the Chequers summit focused on four key areas: economic partnership, security partnership, future areas of cooperation and the frameworks needed to enforce any eventual agreement. It contained details on the “facilitated customs arrangement”, whereby the UK would collect tariffs on behalf of the EU.

It called for the end of the free movement of people but laid out plans for EU citizens to come here without visas for “paid work in limited and clearly defined circumstances”. As regards benefits and social security, it advocated “reciprocal” arrangements with the EU.

A “joint institutional framework” would be established to interpret UK-EU agreements. In the UK, this would be overseen by our courts and in the EU it would be overseen by theirs. Some cases would be referred to the European Court of Justice, though it would be unable to resolve disputes between a UK and an EU court.

The white paper also confirmed that we will exit the European Union at 11 o’clock in the evening on March 29, 2019, which will be midnight central European time.

In her foreword for The Parliamentary Review, the prime minister suggests that a Brexit on these terms would mean we “take back control of our laws, money and borders.”

In his resignation letter, Mr Davis took a different stance: “In my view the inevitable consequence of the proposed policies will be to make the supposed control by Parliament illusory rather than real.”

If the Brexit secretary’s departure threw the government into a spin, it was nothing compared to what came next. On Monday afternoon, with the ink on Davis’ letter not yet dry, Boris Johnson announced that he was following suit. For two years, pundits had speculated about the imminent departures of the Brexit and foreign secretaries. Now they were both gone within 24 hours. In his letter, Mr Johnson said the prime minister was leading the UK into a “semi-Brexit” with the “status of a colony”.

Jeremy Hunt, who had just become the longest serving health secretary in history, was chosen to replace him, with culture secretary Matt Hancock moving to the Health Department. Mr Davis was replaced by Dominic Raab. Further resignations included Steve Baker, Maria Caulfield and Ben Bradley.

It was under this cloud that Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions took on, and were defeated by, Croatia. After which, from both a sporting and a political point of view, it was fair to say that England had been chastened by chequers.

If Mrs May was in need of a brief reprieve, she was unlikely to get one with Donald Trump arriving for his long-awaited UK visit. Amid huge protests, Mr Trump decided to give an interview with The Sun, in which he lambasted Mrs May’s Brexit negotiations and suggested that Boris Johnson would make “a great prime minister”. This was followed by a characteristic backtrack, where he said he would support whatever stance the “incredible” Mrs May took on Brexit.

No sooner had the president left than Mrs May was back in the bear pit of parliament. On the Monday, her customs bill faced a series of amendments from the pro-Brexit European Research Group, two of which were accepted by the government and each passed with a majority of just three votes.

The first of these called for the UK to refuse to collect duties for the EU unless member states did likewise. The second compelled us to have an independent regime for VAT. Labour MP Stephen Kinnock responded: “By capitulating to their proposals on the Customs and [the] Trade Bill she is accepting that the Chequers deal is now dead in the water.”

Two days later, Mr Johnson decided to deliver a resignation speech in the House of Commons, in which, while praising the prime minister for a number of things, he contrasted her Lancaster House speech of January 2017 with what was agreed at Chequers, speaking favourably of the former and less so of the latter.

Shortly before The Parliamentary Review went to print, Johnson’s former cabinet colleague, the trade secretary Liam Fox said he believed a “no-deal” Brexit was now odds-on. As the following articles demonstrate, parliamentary intransigence makes it incredibly difficult for agreements to be reached. With no clear majority for any one Brexit plan, a “no deal” scenario may well become a reality.

Whatever happens, it’s likely that 2019 will see an MP address parliament and compare what was agreed at Chequers with whatever is agreed, or not agreed, with Brussels on March 29 as the central European clock strikes twelve.

The meaning of the meaningful vote

In June, seven months on from his success in attaching a “meaningful vote amendment” to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill in the Commons, the former attorney-general Dominic Grieve was still fighting the same cause on the same bill.

In what proved to be the final round of the long parliamentary battle over the bill, MPs were considering changes made in the Lords, which included a tougher version of the meaningful vote than Mr Grieve’s original. In earlier rounds of consideration he had accepted a compromise proposal from the government, only for the consensus around it to break down when Downing Street presented an analysis of what it would mean that seemed far weaker than Mr Grieve had thought.

That in turn prompted the Lords to replace the compromise with a beefed-up version – and this was what MPs, for the second time in a week, were now considering.

The issue remained the narrow but potentially crucial question of what leverage MPs would have in the event that either parliament rejected the Brexit deal between the UK and the European Union or no deal was reached at all. Should there be a vote in the Commons to instruct ministers on what to do next?

The day before, peers had voted in favour of plans to give MPs a greater say – a move that David Davis, the then-Brexit secretary, warned could undermine the prime minister’s negotiating position because it seemed to foreclose the possibility of Britain walking away with no deal. Mr Davis now offered another compromise that would, he said, ensure that there would be a ministerial statement and a motion to the House of Commons in the event of no deal, but the key point was that his plan would not offer MPs a chance to instruct ministers – because the motion that would be put down would not be amendable.

But Mr Davis added that the procedural details were far less important than the expressed mood of the House of Commons in a moment of crisis, and he warned that the Lords amendment could become a mechanism for frustrating Brexit.

As part of the elaborate legislative dance, Mr Grieve had put down a new amendment. But now a compromise had been offered, he dropped it: “Having finally obtained, with a little more difficulty than I would have wished, the obvious acknowledgement of the sovereignty of this place over the executive, I am prepared to accept the government’s difficulty, support them and accept the form of amendment they want.”

The government proposal seemed to put the issue into the hands of the Speaker, who, in the event of no deal, would have to decide if a future motion would be amendable. There were attempts to ask the Speaker, John Bercow, what he would do in those circumstances, but he declined to say.

What was not clear to MPs was who was climbing down. Had Mr Grieve allowed ministers a face-saving solution, which gave him what he wanted? Or had he flinched from rebellion and accepted a fig leaf in place of the guarantees he really sought?

Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, hoped that MPs would still vote for the Grieve amendment: “Standing back, that looks like common sense. It is unthinkable that any prime minister would seek to force through a course of action that would have significant consequences for many years which the majority in [the House of Commons] did not approve of… the idea that that is how we would achieve an orderly Brexit is for the birds.”

In the end, six Conservatives voted for the Grieve amendment, while four Labour MPs defied their party whip and voted with the government. And later that evening, peers accepted the bill – which allowed it to become law.

Tributes to Tessa Jowell in a debate on cancer treatment

When former Labour culture secretary Tessa Jowell was diagnosed with a brain tumour, she launched a personal campaign to highlight the need for better cancer treatment. The result was two emotional debates in the Lords and the Commons, with speeches from her many friends in both houses.

The Commons debate was opened by Labour MP Sarah Jones, who was part of the team working for Lady Jowell on the bid to hold the 2012 Olympics in London. Lady Jowell watched with her family in the under-gallery of the Commons.

Sarah Jones said that her father had died of cancer just three days after she was elected to parliament. She recalled how, as culture secretary, Tessa Jowell had won first the Labour cabinet and then the country over to the idea of hosting the games: “She would go and talk to a group of children about how they would directly benefit, and then she would dash across the country and deliver a wordy lecture to a load of economists about the evidence base for sporting-led regeneration.”

Now she had a new cause and had again thrown herself into a campaign for people to live longer lives with cancer, “with exactly the same relentless optimism and total bloody doggedness as she did with the Olympics. When faced with this woman who walks through walls, never gives up and always gets what she wants, we could almost feel sorry for cancer.”

There was praise for Lady Jowell from the then health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who said that she left two great legacies: “her amazing achievements with London 2012 and her amazing campaigning on cancer. It is our privilege to take part in this debate and our duty to act on what she says.” This thought was echoed by Steve Brine, the cancer minister, who quoted what he had found the most moving line in her speech in the Lords: “In the end, what gives a life meaning is not only how it is lived, but how it draws to a close… She is giving that line great meaning.”

Unusually, the Speaker, John Bercow, intervened from the chair: “As somebody who is living with cancer you have shone a light on a cruel curse and the need for collaborative, resourced and unflagging devotion to the effort to tackle that curse. [Sarah Jones] said that you loved this place. I hope that it is blindingly obvious to you, Tessa, that we love you.” In her seat in the gallery, Lady Jowell was visibly moved. She died a few weeks later, on May 18, 2018.

Michael Gove’s plans for clean air

In his latest cabinet role as environment secretary, the former Conservative leadership contender Michael Gove has stood out as a radical and innovative minister. While many of his cabinet colleagues have seemed bogged down in Brexit battling, he has produced a series of new initiatives to shape post-Brexit agriculture and to bolster the Conservatives’ environmental credentials.

His new consultation document on clean air was the subject of an urgent question from Neil Parish, the Conservative who chairs the environment, food and rural affairs committee. After the government was defeated for a third time in the High Court this year for failing to deal with the problem, Mr Gove took the opportunity to showcase his plans: “Air pollution is the greatest environmental threat to human health in this country and the fourth biggest public health killer, after cancer, obesity and heart disease.” The government had allocated £3 billion to reduce harmful emissions of nitrous oxide and was committed to ending the sale of diesel and petrol cars by 2040, taking them off the roads altogether by 2050.

His new strategy outlined steps to reduce the use of the most polluting fuels, better manage the way manures and slurries were used on farmland and cut emissions from agricultural machinery. It also aimed to reduce emissions from wood-burning stoves, which, along with solid fuels, account for more than a third of fine particle pollution – but it did not suggest banning open fires.

Mr Parish was supportive but thought that more-ambitious action was needed to improve the air in towns and cities. One key issue was the need to reduce the fine particles produced by vehicle tyres and brakes, and he thought that the most effective way to achieve that was to reduce the need for vehicle use by providing more and cleaner public transport. He also wanted petrol and diesel vehicles to be phased out by 2040 – ten years ahead of the government’s current target date.

Mr Gove noted that while the UK had repeatedly been found in breach of EU air quality standards, one issue behind that was the inadequacy of the EU’s own vehicle emission regulations, as well as the efforts of some motor manufacturers to evade them.

For Labour, Sue Hayman said that the new strategy was weak on cutting roadside pollution and did not meet the urgency of the public health emergency. She wanted a network of mandatory clean air zones to bring nitrous oxide levels down to legal limits, and she accused Mr Gove of shunting responsibility for policing air quality on to “cash-strapped” local councils. She added that it was essential that the UK have an effective environmental watchdog in place after Brexit to ensure that the promised improvements are delivered.

Conservative Robert Halfon, warned that Mr Gove was already seen as “a friend, rightly of the bees and the fishes, but also needs to be a friend to hard-pressed motorists.”

The last word

This edition of The Parliamentary Review has overseen yet another extraordinary year in British politics. Cabinet ministers have departed, Commons debates have raged long into the night and, at times, it has felt like little has been achieved. From our standpoint, it is clear that this has not been caused by a lack of trying. The members of parliament with whom we have crossed paths, from all parties and none, have each been working incredibly hard to further what they feel is in the best interests of the constituency, and the country, they serve. 

And, though the political realm has been a source of frustration for many, it is clear, as Andrew Neil observes in the opening pages of this publication, that those operating at the micro level of the British economy are not only working tirelessly, they are also achieving great things. The articles from this year’s Review representatives exemplify this.

A country is not a perfect blueprint put into action: it is the sum of millions of autonomous parts. Individuals who motivate their staff, inspire their students or simply do their job to the best standard they can muster. And, though there are always adjustments and improvements to be made, it is our conviction that British parts are in fine working order.