Parliament is back in Brexit box seat

PUBLISHED: 17:06 14 February 2018 | UPDATED: 17:07 14 February 2018

Pro-EU demonstrators flying a Union flag and an EU flag outside of the Houses of Parliament

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Parliament has reasserted its strength in the EU debate, says STEPHEN DORRELL. Now MPs must exercise their power

The big political story of 2018 is that the government’s Brexit policy is unravelling and the primary reason is that parliament has taken control of the process.

By passing Dominic Grieve’s amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill in December, parliament ensured that the government cannot take Britain out of the EU without further primary legislation later this year. That process will create the occasion for the meaningful vote on the deal promised by ministers. When that vote happens there will be nowhere to hide.

It will not be enough to say that the government is giving effect to the Referendum result. They did that when they gave notice under Article 50.

They will have to show how their deal offers answers to the challenges which concerned the electorate in 2016. But we don’t need to wait until then.

The Brexit process is the exclusive responsibility of ministers – and it is parliament’s job to hold them to account. They must be required to show how their policies will deliver better trading and job prospects leading to rising living standards, improving public services and enhanced rights for working people.

They must also explain why they believe that their ability to advance Britain’s security and broader political interests will be improved if they vacate Britain’s seat at the table where the key decisions about Europe’s future will continue to be made.

These questions need to be debated now. Democracy is not an event – it is a way of life. It involves active challenge to those in authority and a demand that they account for their decisions.

The reality is that ministers are failing to answer any of these questions. Faced with the prospect of profound changes to Britain’s international relationships ministers must be called to account for their failure to agree even the most basic outline of their objectives for Brexit.

Until recently the benefits of open trade between nations was one of the principles about which all Conservatives (and virtually everyone else) were agreed. That is why post war governments of all parties have promoted successive rounds of world trade talks intended to reduce barriers to trade across the globe, including through the development of the EU single market.

Now ministers tell us we must leave the customs union. They also tell us that it is no longer in Britain’s interests to create a single market framework across the European continent. Furthermore, when Treasury officials report that additional barriers will reduce trade, the zealots allege that their conclusions are politically motivated. I simply don’t believe that ministers have changed their minds on these key issues – which leads to the conclusion that they are trying to build a programme for our country in which they themselves do not believe.

It is for parliament to expose this central dishonesty and by doing so to expose the policy vacuum at the heart of government.

We are being invited to agree to a transition to an unknown destination. Rather than blindly entrusting our future to ministers who are devoid of either strategy or vision, we look to parliament to challenge them to account for themselves.

And, most importantly, we look to parliament to ensure that no deal is struck with the EU that does not command the support of the people who initiated the process. It is for parliament to defend the interests of the British people as a whole, and to insist that only they can have the final say in this process.

Stephen Dorrell is chairman of the European Movement UK and a former secretary of state for health

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