The defining message of the Vote Leave campaign was that “leaving the EU … will save our sovereignty.” Before and after the referendum, leading Brexiteers within the government have embedded their arguments of global trade and reduced immigration within the noble principle that parliament, and by extension the British people it represents, remain sovereignty.
Yet this week saw yet another clear demonstration of the government curtailing parliamentary oversight of its’ disastrous Brexit strategy. After weeks of delaying tactics in which the government refused to comply with cross-party calls that it release a series of confidential studies on the economic impact of Brexit, Brexit Secretary David Davis risks becoming the first politician in centuries to be held in contempt of parliament after finally distributing incomplete and heavily edited reports.
The government withheld any information they considered ‘sensitive’, despite a binding, unanimous vote by MPs for complete access of the documents as well as reassurances by the Brexit select committee that any sensitive information would be treated appropriately. David Davis’ extreme self-editing meant that MPs received around twenty reports fewer than expected, with Keir Starmer expressing his shock at the paucity of information that the government deemed fit to share.
The fact that MPs had to utilise every parliamentary trick available just to secure the release of the modified information, including a ‘humble address’ that directly called upon The Queen to force Mr Davis to release the impact assessments, demonstrates the government’s desire to keep parliament at arms-length whilst key decisions are made by Theresa May’s core team. To then release such a watered-down version of what parliament requested was too much even for fierce Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, who said the government was “in serious constitutional waters if it doesn’t provide the full information … if you try to trample the rights of Commons in government … you have no means of curtailing abuses of power.”
Yet this remarkably disrespectful approach should not be surprising, as secrecy and concentration of executive power has defined this government’s approach to Brexit. The government’s ‘Great Repeal Bill’ has been widely criticised for granting extraordinarily sweeping and unchecked powers to ministers as they incorporate EU directives into British law. Meanwhile, Andrea Leadsom has also passed a motion to swing influential public bill committees in the government’s favour.
The dispute over the Brexit documents is simply the latest demonstration that, despite its empty rhetorical commitment to the sanctity of parliamentary sovereignty, this government would rather circumvent our parliamentary checks and balances. Labour must continue to oppose the government’s efforts to deliver the hard, centrally-managed Brexit that the electorate resoundingly rejected in June.