Daily Telegraph: My Fellow MPs' Anti-Brexit Passions Do Not Justify Constitutional Vandalism

Robert contributed to today's Daily Telegraph about the so-called 'Cooper Amendment'.  You can read his article on the Telegraph's website here, or alternatively find it reproduced below:

 

My Fellow MPs' Anti-Brexit Passions Do Not Justify Constitutional Vandalism 

Around a dozen amendments have been tabled to the Government’s ‘neutral’ motion on the next stages of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, due for debate this week.  The one generating the most noise is the so-called ‘Cooper amendment’, named after the lead campaigner, Labour MP Yvette Cooper. The noise is justified. This amendment is nothing less than constitutional vandalism that would have profound consequences for the way we are governed, and for our Parliamentary democracy.

The Cooper amendment seeks to wrest control of the Parliamentary timetable from the executive.  The amendment precedes and facilitates the “Cooper Bill”  or “Cooper-Adonis Bill” - to reflect the involvement of the Labour peer and outspoken anti-Brexit campaigner, Lord Adonis.

The Cooper-Adonis Bill would, if passed into law, compel the Government to seek the extension of Article 50 should the House of Commons fail to approve a Withdrawal Agreement by 26th February.

Being a Private Members’ Bill, Cooper-Adonis would ordinarily fail to gain sufficient time for debate, and consequently fail to get off the ground. The Cooper amendment aims to short-circuit normal Parliamentary process by ensuring that Cooper-Adonis would stand as the first item of business - and therefore ahead of Government business - on 5th February as long as ten MPs, elected to the House as members of four different parties (importantly, a deliberate distinction to those who hold the Whip), and two backers of the Bill, sign the required procedural motion.

Combined with its cleverly crafted clauses, the amendment essentially provides the time and protection necessary for Cooper-Adonis to be rushed through Parliament and into law.

Anyone could be pardoned for thinking that this entire endeavour is simply meant as a way of blocking the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and overturning the result of the referendum by way of a second referendum. Indeed, it is of note that the Cooper-Adonis project commands the support of the ‘People’s Vote’ lobby, who are campaigning for to overturn the result of the 2016 vote by just that stratagem.

But let’s just assume for now that the architects of Cooper-Adonis are indeed simply wishing to allow us “a bit more time” to consider and deliver Brexit, and consider the implications of their proposals.

They are far-reaching, and devastating. They are advocating the House of Commons hijacking executive power from the Government - a Government, let us not forget, which the very same House of Commons confirmed it has confidence in so recently.

This is a fundamental change to our constitution, and it is recklessly naive to assume that it will be a “one off” and that no precedent will be set. The role of the House of Commons is not to be the Government, but to scrutinise it. Its role is not to carry out negotiations, but to hold the Government of the day to account for its actions, and for the legislation that it alone has the constitutional function and democratic mandate to introduce. Cooper-Adonis proposes to turn the role of the House of Commons on its head, enabling it to propose, timetable, scrutinise, and ultimately pass, its own legislation.

Parliament, and certainly not the House of Commons alone, has no executive function. Nor, save for an unhappy ten year experiment after the Civil War, has it ever had. That role is for the Government - the Crown in Parliament. The role for Parliament alone is to scrutinise and constrain the executive – not to replicate or replace it. It does not have the administrative support to carry out the role of Government, and there is no way that the EU, or anyone else, can negotiate with a loose body of MPs rather than an executive body.

The constitutional power of our executive has evolved over many centuries of delicate, slow, often painful and bloody work. It has seen a progressive power shift away from the Monarch and indeed from the Ministers who today exercise the prerogative in Her Majesty’s name. But Cooper-Adonis fundamentally misunderstands the established and justified constitutional role for our executive and Parliament’s relationship with it. Yes, Brexit is intended to mean “taking back control” to Parliament, but that has always been intended to mean, and must logically mean, to the Crown in Parliament - the Government as scrutinised by Parliament - not to Parliament alone.

If the proponents of Cooper-Adonis believe that the House of Commons is best placed to handle the responsibility of setting the nation’s legislative agenda then they should say so, and prompt a national debate on the matter, rather than stumbling into profound constitutional change in pursuit of a short-term policy goal.

Clearly passions are at boiling point and we face a moment of immense national challenge.  But that is no justification for running roughshod over the conventions by which Parliament operates and throwing away a delicate balance that has only been established after hundreds of years of painstaking and sometimes violent evolution. All my MP colleagues, from every part of the House and every side of the Brexit debate, should draw back from committing an act of constitutional vandalism which we would all live to regret.

Robert Courts MP