Downing Street says proper parliamentary scrutiny at the end of Brexit negotiations would “incentivise” the EU to offer us a bad divorce deal. It would rather discourage Theresa May from doing anything crazy in the Brexit talks.

The House of Lords has backed by 366 to 268 on an amendment to the Brexit bill requiring just such a meaningful vote (see amendment 3). The clause would require the prime minister to get parliament’s approval for any Brexit deal she negotiates, as well as if she decides to quit the EU without any deal at all. In the first case, our parliament would need to approve an agreement before the European Parliament debates and votes on it.

Last month the government offered parliament a vote at the end of the Brexit process, but added two caveats which robbed the concession of most of its value: if MPs and peers don’t like the deal she produces, the UK will crash out without a deal; and if she doesn’t conclude a deal, there won’t be a vote at all. 

Hence the proposed Lords amendment, which would let parliament look at alternatives if a satisfactory deal can’t be agreed – including sending May back to the negotiating table or asking the electorate what it wanted via a referendum. The people strongly back such an approach, according to a poll for the Independent.

Yesterday’s comments by May’s spokesperson seem designed to persuade MPs to overturn the amendment when it returns to the House of Commons next week. He said: “On the issue of the meaningful vote we shouldn’t commit to any process that would incentivise the EU to offer us a bad deal. If we are in a position where any deal negotiated by the prime minister could be rejected by MPs, that gives strength potentially to other parties in the negotiation.”

It would be perfectly fine to say that parliament shouldn’t micromanage the negotiations. But the idea that the prime minister should be able to conclude our most important peacetime negotiations with so little parliamentary scrutiny makes a mockery of the idea of good governance. It is only if May fails to keep MPs and peers on side during the talks that there could be a problem.

In other words, a meaningful final vote would incentivise the prime minister to stay properly in touch with parliament. That, in turn, would strengthen her negotiating position because the EU would know she had MPs and peers behind her.

But wouldn’t such a vote deny May the chance to threaten to walk away if the other side didn’t offer a good deal? Not at all. She could still do this if she had parliament on side. 

It is, of course, possible that MPs and peers might think it was foolish to make such threats. But if so, do we really want the prime minister to be free to do just that?

The second paragraph was updated on March 8 to give the result of the House of Lords vote

by Hugo Dixon | 07.03.2017 

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

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