A cross-party committee of MPs, including arch-Brexiter Michael Gove, is rightly insisting that parliament is involved at the beginning, middle and end of the Brexit process. The central thrust of its proposals is that parliament and the public must be fully involved in Britain’s most important peacetime negotiations.

The House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee’s report ought to carry weight with Theresa May – not only because of its good sense but also because it is backed by a broad spectrum of political opinion. Prominent Tory Leave campaigners such as Gove and Dominic Raab have signed up to the report; so have Remain campaigners as well as MPs from six other parties, including politicians from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

The committee wants the government to produce a White Paper setting out its Brexit plan no later than mid-February. Given that Theresa May is determined to trigger Article 50 by end-March, publishing a plan any later than this would mean parliament and the people wouldn’t have time to debate it properly before the she kicks off the Brexit process. 

So far, the government has merely said it won’t spell out what it is trying to achieve in January – though the premier will give what is being billed as a big speech on Brexit next Tuesday. It is vital to pin her down to a mid-February deadline for producing a proper plan. 

The government has also promised to hold some debates before triggering Article 50. But it hasn’t told MPs when these debates will take place, meaning they could have little time to prepare for them. The committee is right to ask May for a timetable for these debates.

The MPs are also calling for a sufficiently detailed plan, in the form of a White Paper – something the Brexit secretary David Davis urged before he joined the government. And they want the government to publish its economic assessments of different options for trade with the EU post-Brexit, so long as this doesn’t compromise its negotiating hand.

Once May triggers Article 50, the MPs want her to keep our parliament fully informed about the progress of the negotiations – at least as well informed as the European Parliament. It wants access to key documents sufficiently soon for its views to be taken into account. 

Although the committee accepts that no part of the UK has a veto over the ultimate deal, it is also calling on the prime minister to take into account the views of the UK’s devolved governments and England’s regions. This is crucial given that Scottish nationalists might use a botched Brexit as an excuse to break up the UK; and that the restoration of a hard border in Ireland could damage the fragile peace process in Northern Ireland.

Ticking time-clock

Finally, the MPs are insisting that parliament has sufficient time to consider and vote on any final Brexit deal. So far May has vacillated on this, refusing to give such a commitment when she appeared in front of a parliamentary committee before Christmas. 

If she reaches a deal with the EU, MPs already have the power to veto it. But this is not good enough – not least because the relevant treaty may come to parliament so late in the day that MPs have no choice but to wave it through even if it is extremely bad. After all, once Article 50 is triggered, a two-year time clock starts ticking – and if there’s no agreement, we could fall off a cliff.

May’s instinct is to play her cards close to her chest, discussing key matters with a small coterie of advisers. She initially didn’t want to produce a plan before triggering Article 50. It was only after MPs pressed her that she gave ground.

The premier is also still insisting that she and she alone has the right to invoke Article 50. Hence, the need to launch a high court action to force her to put legislation before parliament. After May lost that case, she appealed to the Supreme Court. A judgment is expected next week.

The early skirmishes over what Brexit means would have been less prickly if the prime minister had accepted up front that the key choices need to be aired publicly, not decided behind closed doors. What happens on Brexit will affect all our lives. Our representatives must therefore be kept fully in the loop throughout the process. Transparency and parliamentary scrutiny are vital components of a healthy democracy.

May should understand this and accept the Brexit committee’s proposals without further quibbling.

by Hugo Dixon | 14.01.2017

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