UK Parliament is an institution that is traditionally considered weak in the foreign policymaking process. Has it now taken control of Brexit? Well, it’s complicated, writes Thomas Eason (University of Nottingham). On balance then, it is currently unclear who really has control of Brexit, he concludes.
Traditionally, Parliament is considered particularly weak when it comes to making foreign policy. Sure, Parliament influences traditional foreign policymaking quite significantly through debates and Select Committee inquiries, and its role in decisions to go to war has increased, but when it comes to making decisions, foreign policy is usually made in Whitehall. Brexit, however, is not usual. Unlike more traditional foreign policy issues Brexit has required parliamentary approval and significant changes in legislation. When compared to normal foreign policymaking, Parliament has had significant scope to influence Brexit, and it has done so. Government documents have been sent for, May’s withdrawal agreement has been rejected, a no-confidence vote has been held, and more is still yet to come. With this in mind, has Parliament (an institution that is traditionally considered weak in the foreign policymaking process) taken control of Brexit?
Rolling back to March 2017, Parliament had its first significant opportunity to influence Brexit with the Notification of Withdrawal Bill. This Bill was necessary for the government to invoke Article 50, and Parliament passed it with minimal opposition. This decision to allow the government to trigger article 50 has since been heavily critiqued. By allowing the government to trigger article 50 in March 2017, Parliament allowed an unprepared executive to fire the starting gun on a time-limited process. When it triggered article 50, the government had not yet reached an agreement even within itself on what Britain’s future relationship with the European Union should be, let alone developed a majority within Parliament. MPs had the chance to stop an ill-prepared executive from launching international negotiations prematurely, and they failed to do so.
However, before judging MPs too harshly for this, it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves of the context. During the Brexit referendum in 2016, David Cameron had suggested the Article 50 process would begin immediately if people voted to leave. Fast forward to March 2017, Theresa May had control of a majority government; the British media were relentlessly and irresponsibly targeting “establishment” figures that they believed were opposing Brexit; and key Brexit supporters themselves were even predicting violence on the streets if they didn’t get their own way. There was a toxic narrative that the Brexit process had to begin immediately, and it is unsurprising that Parliament capitulated to this.
At this point in time Parliament posed little challenge to the executive and certainly wasn’t in control of Brexit, but things were about to change. Following the invocation of Article 50, May decided to call an early general election, and Parliament agreed. The PM had hoped to increase her slim majority, however, she failed miserably. In June 2017 the Conservative Party lost its majority in the Commons and was forced to proceed as a minority government. This would be problematic even in normal times and, thanks to the thorny issue of Brexit, these are not normal times.
After the 2017 general election Parliament began to flex its muscles. Conservative MPs are split over what our future relationship with the EU should be, and the government has repeatedly been defeated as a result. Some of the most significant occasions of Parliament asserting itself over the executive include:
- When Dominic Grieve successfully amended the European Union Withdrawal Bill, making it so MPs had to approve the Withdrawal Agreement
- When Labour successfully used an Opposition Day to request the government release their Brexit impact studies
- When Labour successfully used an Opposition Day to request the government release its full legal advice on Brexit
- When MPs voted to find the government in contempt of Parliament for failing to release that legal advice
- When Dominic Grieve successfully ensured that, should the Withdrawal Agreement get voted down, MPs would be able to amend the non-binding motion on the government’s plan B
- When Dominic Grieve successfully (and controversially) amended a business motion, now giving the government 3 days to table their plan B in Parliament
- When MPs voted to reject Thresa May’s withdrawal agreement
It is quite striking to see from the list above just how much influence Parliament has had over this foreign policy issue and just how much it has asserted its rights to continue having a say. As a result of the government’s split party, MPs have forced the executive to release documents against its wishes, forced it to give MPs the final say on the Withdrawal Agreement, and have vetoed that agreement when it was put before them. In the face of all these defeats, the government cannot be said to have full control of the Commons when it comes to Brexit, and the Commons cannot be described as weak on this foreign policy issue.
That said, following the defeat of May’s deal, it is now unclear who actually has control of Brexit. In theory, the government will need to listen to MPs and draw together a new plan. In that scenario, Britain’s desired future relationship with the EU will be drawn up in Parliament rather than in Whitehall. However, the situation is much more complex than this take would suggest. MPs do not speak in one unified voice on the Brexit issue and any decision May makes has a real risk of triggering more high-profile resignations. To avoid this, she might well decide to force her deal onto MPs through a risky game of chicken. As the clock runs down it is quite possible May will return to Parliament with a plan not too dissimilar to the one that got rejected, this time with less than two months to go and a stronger narrative of “my deal or no deal”. Indeed, following the Prime Minister’s statement on the 21st January, this seems to be exactly what she intends to do, and we do not know how MPs will respond to this attempt at coercion. Parliament may ultimately be responsible for accepting or rejecting May’s plan, but who really has control is unclear.
There is, however, one final plot twist. Some backbench MPs are seeking to suspend particular Standing Orders (parliamentary rules) so they can legislate for Brexit themselves using Private Members’ bills. This unusual ploy would still require a majority of MPs to reach a position, and even then, it may not be possible. If it does happen, the most likely outcome appears to be a Bill that would force the Government to seek an extension article 50 – hardly taking control of the issue. There could be scope, however, for MPs to go further. They could decide to rip up the rules completely and attempt to legislate for a “People’s Vote”. If this happens one could reasonably make the claim Parliament has taken control of Brexit. This option could become more appealing to desperate MPs as the clock ticks down, particularly if the PM decides to play chicken. If this happens, it is important to stress that democratically elected MPs taking control of the issue would not constitute a coup. Parliament sets its own rules and the executive is drawn from, and answerable to, the legislature. If MPs conclude that the government is so inept at handling Brexit they have no choice but to take control of the issue, they would still be doing their job, that being legislating and holding the government to account.
On balance then, it is currently unclear who really has control of Brexit. Yes, Parliament will ultimately be responsible for accepting or rejecting any plan that the executive puts before it, but MPs are not beyond the reach of coercion. Parliament could conceivably strong-arm the government into adopting a new position, it could take control of the issue completely, but it could just as conceivably get bullied into accepting anything put before it. There is a multitude of potential outcomes to this Brexit saga and it is still unclear what will actually happen in the end. However, the fact that these potential outcomes exist at all is significant for Parliament. Parliament, an institution that is often overlooked in the study of British foreign policymaking, is now in the centre of the battle over Britain’s future relationship with the EU. How much control it ultimately has is unclear, but one cannot deny Parliament’s influence over this particularly controversial foreign policy issue.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.
Thomas Eason is a PhD International Relations student at the University of Nottingham.