Government found in contempt of Parliament
Is British democracy broken? Yesterday was one of the most extraordinary days in political history, pitting the people we elect to run the country against the people who protect our interests.
Sixty-three minutes of mayhem. The day May lost control. Brexit on a knife edge. May suffers worst defeat by PM in Commons for 40 years. Sabotage Brexit at your peril!
The newspaper headlines this morning are hysterical and huge, covering the front pages in giant black type, most of them adorned with merciless close-up photos of the bags under Theresa May’s eyes.
The anti-Conservative Guardian newspaper rubs it in: “Theresa May staggers on after three Brexit defeats in single day”
What’s going on?
Yesterday was a historic day because for the first time ever, the government that runs the country was judged to be in contempt of parliament.
In essence, parliament, the body that since 1529 has represented the interests of the British people and made sure they are taken into account by the government said “enough is enough” and took back control.
For Theresa May, there were three massive defeats in the House of Commons.
In the first, at 4.25pm, MPs forced her to promise that she will publish the “final and full” confidential legal advice given to her about her Brexit deal. Some of this advice will highlight risks in the deal that she would rather keep quiet.
In the second defeat, at 4.41pm, MPs voted that the government had been in contempt of parliament for not publishing this advice earlier.
In the third defeat, at 5:28pm, they passed another motion that ensures that they have a say over what happens next if they reject May’s agreement with Brussels at the end of a five-day debate due to end next Tuesday.
According to The Times today, one cabinet minister said parliament was moving towards forcing a second referendum in which the British people would be given the option of staying in the EU and cancelling Brexit.
A new poll today shows that more people think Britain was wrong to vote to leave the EU than ever before. It found that 49 per cent are now in favour of remaining in the EU. By contrast only 38 per cent want to go ahead and honour the result of the EU referendum.
Parliament. Government. People. Who runs Britain? Is democracy actually working any more?
Yes, say many, and yesterday’s events were a powerful example of an ancient democracy flexing its muscles. We have a system in which the government cannot make new laws or raise new taxes without parliament’s agreement. Yesterday, parliament hit back.
No, reply others. Democracy is nothing if it doesn’t express the will of ordinary people. On the 23rd of June 2016, 17,410,742 people voted to leave the EU. They represent 51.9% of the votes against the 48.1% who voted to remain. The government’s job is to carry out the instructions contained in that result. Parliament has no right to stop it.
- Is a referendum of the general public more important than a decision taken by 650 elected MPs?
- Does it make sense that parliament is the supreme legal authority in the UK, which can create or end any law?
- “Dear Mrs May”… Without doing any research write a heartfelt 300-word letter to Theresa May about British politics. Tell her how you feel and what you think needs to change. Be very honest and use your own language.
- Read about yesterday’s debate in the House of Commons. List three reasons why the government’s Brexit agreement with the EU might be a good idea. Now list three reasons why it might be a bad idea. Compare your reasons with the rest of the class.
Some People Say...
“It's not just parliament that requires radical modernisation. It's our democratic processes.”David Blunkett, British politician
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Theresa May suffered humiliation on an historic scale yesterday as her government became the first to be found in contempt of Parliament for failing to publish the legal advice on the backstop. This will be disclosed to MPs in full this morning. May has now lost 16 votes - as many as David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair lost between them. The days of Downing Street dominating the Brexit process are over.
- What do we not know?
- Are we drifting towards a second referendum? The Remainers think so but still can't quite work out how it happens given that at present no Tory leader, current or future, would promise one. And it's worth remembering it is not Labour policy either. There is a majority against almost everything but no majority in favour of anything. As Matt Chorley of The Times writes today: “One side wanted roast beef, the other spotted dick. So she served up cottage pie and custard and can't believe no one will swallow it”.
- This was the year that Henry VIII summoned the "Reformation Parliament" in order to break Britain from its links with the Pope in Rome. That parliament, directed by the king, began making laws on areas of national life which had previously been directed by the Catholic Church.
- Brexit deal
- The deal includes details about the “transition period” between March 2019 and December 2020, when the UK will still need to follow EU rules. It protects the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and vice versa. It also includes backup plans (known as a “backstop”) for what will happen if the transition period ends without a trade deal. In that scenario, Northern Ireland would have different trading rules to Great Britain. For many Conservative MPs who oppose the deal, as well as the DUP, the backstop is unacceptable.
- Contempt of parliament
- The parliamentary rulebook defines contempt as “any act or omission which obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions.” In other words, anything that stops MPs doing their job fully.