The Government defeat in the Commons last week on an amendment to a Northern Ireland bill was unwelcome but it doesn’t change ‘the price of fish’.
The Northern Ireland bill is a short technical measure to prolong attempts to re-start the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont and avoid having to revert to direct rule in Ulster from Westminster.
The measure was ‘hijacked’ a fortnight ago to force abortion and same-sex marriage on to the reluctant province, and last week it was hijacked to try and stop a no-deal Brexit, on the assumption that the new Prime Minister would prorogue Parliament to prevent it from interfering.
The amended bill required the Government to give frequent updates to Parliament on progress in restarting the assembly, thus making it difficult to adhere to this requirement if Parliament were prorogued. The further amendment went another step by requiring that if the Government couldn’t meet that reporting obligation because of a prorogation, then a Royal Proclamation would require Parliament to meet the next day and for five subsequent days.
This perceived “Remainer triumph” is based on one quite false assumption, namely that there ever was a serious plan to prorogue Parliament in the first place. There wasn’t. It just isn’t serious politics. Regular readers of this column may recall that I addressed the issue several weeks ago and reminded them that when King Charles I prorogued the Long Parliament, it didn’t end well for him.
Of course, Dominic Raab and Boris Johnson refused to rule out the possibility of a prorogation, but refusing to rule something out is very different from having a plan to do it. The first rule of any serious negotiator is to keep all possibilities open.
The damage that the defeat has done, is not that it has removed a serious option, but that it sends a further signal to the EU -as if one were needed- indicating that Parliament will oppose a no-deal BREXIT, and therefore that the threat is a paper-tiger and that they need not engage seriously in negotiations to avoid it.
Once again Parliament has had the effect of acting like a fifth column in undermining the Government’s BREXIT negotiations.
How reliable is the signal that Parliament has sent?
The Government defeat was large, but does it really indicate that a majority in Parliament would vote to block a no-deal BREXIT?
I doubt it.
The actual vote was on the question of potentially side-lining Parliament at a key moment in our history, not something to be taken lightly in a modern parliamentary democracy that takes itself seriously.
Frankly, in such a circumstance it isn’t difficult to persuade democrats of any persuasion to resist the Government whip on such a question.
It is a quite different question however, to ask democrats representing constituencies that voted by 70% and upwards in favour of leaving the EU, instead to vote to change the law and prevent the UK leaving on All Souls Day.
The last time the Commons voted on the possibility of availing itself of such a power, it demurred and the proposal was defeated by 11 votes.
I conclude that no-deal remains on the table, and the EU better believe it.