Sunday 21 July 2019

John Downing: 'Amid the chaos, UK MPs have now 'done a Cromwell' for parliament'


British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the floor during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Photo: UK Parliament/Mark Duffy/PA
British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the floor during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Photo: UK Parliament/Mark Duffy/PA
John Downing

John Downing

Oliver Cromwell, Britain's 17th century Lord Protector, is seared into the Irish folk memory, his name synonymous with the brutal slaughter of innocent civilians in Co Wexford in 1649. His infamy lives to this day.

But on the adjacent and larger island, Cromwell is chiefly celebrated for advancing the rights of parliament and helping lay a milestone on the long road to universal suffrage. A large statue of the man stands close to the entrance of the UK parliament at Westminster.

Amid the rolling, slow-motion car crash that is Brexit, something remarkable has happened in the role of parliament and which harks back to the memory of Cromwell. The British memory, that is.

Day three of Theresa May's uphill battle to win support for her reviled Brexit deal unfolds today. But it has been clear since the opening hour of these proceedings that she has already been upstaged by her MPs.

The MPs drew first blood by voting for the first time to convict the government of "contempt of parliament" and obliging the executive to publish the full text of legal advice furnished by the attorney general on the draft EU-UK withdrawal agreement. The opposition trumpeted that outcome as a "badge of shame" for Mrs May.

But the next vote was far less symbolic, and gave the parliament real potential power over Brexit. It gave the MPs the power if we get the expected outcome that Mrs May fails in her attempts to ratify her exit treaty.

It ensures MPs can amend any motion the government brings to the House of Commons relating to its divorce deal with the European Union. In practice, it means the UK parliament will give the thumbs down for a no-deal Brexit.

And while a move like that would not be legally binding, such is its political force in the current fraught circumstances that the will of parliament cannot be ignored. The good news is that there is no majority at Westminster for a no-deal Brexit.

The less good news is that there is no clear will as to what should happen after the expected failure of Mrs May's admirable but ill-fated efforts.

Word from Brussels yesterday was that the EU might be amenable to trying to offer her some "help" if she fails to land her deal by a narrow margin.

But such help appears only to stretch to embellishing the language in the accompanying declaration to frame big picture talks on the future EU-UK relationship after Brexit.

Publication of the full AG's legal advice on the withdrawal agreement puts the focus back on Ireland's key interest: the Border backstop. Proceedings at Westminster again emphasise to us that avoiding the return of a hard Border in Ireland is peripheral when set against English politicians' doctrinaire objections to the EU.

So, Irish politicians' and diplomats' jobs remain exactly the same. It is to ensure that aspect of the EU-UK deal is not unpicked.

Irish Independent

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