One of the promises of Brexit campaigners, famously, was that parliament will ‘take back control’ of laws that affect Britain. Since the referendum result, it has seemed rather more that the government is taking back control, rather than MPs, with the executive (quite naturally) resisting any opportunity for Parliament to have a say in, well, any part of the Brexit deal.
This evening, though, MPs handed the government its third defeat of the day on an amendment from former attorney general Dominic Grieve which would give the Commons a say on what happens if (or more probably when) Theresa May’s deal is defeated next week. The plan, which passed 321 to 299 votes, would allow MPs to amend the government’s plan B. The government, of course, insists officially that there is no plan B, but the whips are already holding conversations with MPs on the basis that the first vote will fail and there will need to be concessions in order to win another one.
Giving MPs the ability to amend the plan B does sound rather technical, but it opens the door to those like Nick Boles who are pushing for a ‘Norway plus’ once it becomes clear that May’s deal can’t pass. It also means that Parliament is, well, taking back control, in a way that it rarely tries to do on domestic legislation.
Brexit has had many negative effects on political discourse, but one of its under-appreciated benefits is that it has forced MPs to do what they very rarely tend to: look through the small print of the things the government is asking them to approve and check that there aren’t any nasties buried in there. It has encouraged MPs to be serious legislators, which they rarely are when it comes to domestic legislation, often failing (or refusing) to notice policy disasters in the bills they are approving all the way through to Royal Assent. There had seemed to be an irony in some Brexiteers who wouldn’t know how to do line-by-line scrutiny properly even if their life depended on it demanding control of more laws, presumably so they could ignore them too. Perhaps now the culture in Parliament is changing so that MPs really do try to stop the government controlling quite so much and messing up quite so often.