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Theresa May is trying to prevent parliamentary scrutiny if she wants to crash out of EU without a deal or to quit with a really bad one.

The issue has come to head as the Article 50 legislation enters its “committee” stage in the House of Commons, where numerous amendments are being debated. Some of the most critical, in particular NC110, would require the government to put a deal to our parliament before it goes to the European Parliament. Another, NC 99, would require parliamentary approval to quit the EU whether there’s a deal or not. These will be debated tomorrow.

The case for such amendments is simple. We live in a parliamentary democracy. The prime minister should not have the power to foist a bad Brexit deal on the country or drive us over a cliff-edge by securing no deal at all without parliament’s approval. The fact that we’ve had a referendum calling for us to quit the EU is not a counter-argument. It merely decided the principle of leaving, not the manner.

The government has two main arguments against these amendments. Both are weak.

One is that giving MPs the power to stop May quitting without a deal would undermine her negotiating tactics. “If we tell the EU we will walk away if they don’t make concessions, but they know parliament can make us go straight back again, it gives us zero leverage,” an unnamed minister told the Mail on Sunday.

The problem with this argument is that crashing out without a deal would be extremely damaging to us and only somewhat damaging to the EU. Threatening to do so would be like putting a gun to our head and saying we will pull it. Unless the EU was offering us really dreadful terms, it would be pretty crazy. In most circumstances, it would be viewed as an empty threat – which is hardly a good negotiating tactic.

There may be circumstances where it would still be sensible to do this. But any such threat would carry more credibility, not less, if parliament backed it. And requiring parliament to be involved would prevent May bandying around threats lightly and so reduce the chance of inflicting harm on ourselves by our bluff being called.

The government’s other argument is that we would end up in a “perpetual Brexit purgatory”, if MPs reject a bad deal. This argument, outlined by an unnamed source in the Guardian, doesn’t stack up either. Once Article 50 is triggered, a two-year clock starts ticking. Parliament can’t just keep rejecting deals until it gets one it likes; otherwise we will again crash out of the EU without any deal. 

However, giving our MPs and peers the chance to vet a deal before it goes to the European Parliament is important because it buys time. Any agreement is expected to go to the Strasbourg parliament in the autumn of next year, up to six months before the Article 50 process runs out. This wouldn’t be long enough to create “perpetual purgatory” if May produces a terrible deal, but it would give us a chance to figure out an alternative.

Tory MPs who are inclined to back amendments ensuring parliamentary scrutiny of the end of the Brexit process should hold their nerves and not be dissuaded by May’s spurious arguments.

by Hugo Dixon | 06.02.2017


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