European Union (Withdrawal)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:02 pm on 3rd September 2019.

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Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee 9:02 pm, 3rd September 2019

I put it to Tommy Sheppard that the very question that he wants to put to the British people again is the question that was on the ballot paper in the 2016 referendum. The then Prime Minister made it clear in debates on television that if the country voted to leave, that decision would be implemented: article 50 would be invoked and after two years we would be out—out of the single market and out of the customs union. That is what he said, so I do not see any need to run the thing again.

I merely rise on the occasion of this debate to observe that what some people, including you, Mr Speaker, call a “constitutional outrage”—it is a little novel for the Speaker to enter into the debate quite so openly, but there we are; that is another novelty taking place in our constitution—other people refer to as a perfectly normal decision.

In truth it is neither, but this controversy reflects the evolving and changing nature of the relationship between Parliament, Government and people. That is a permanent evolution in our constitution, and two measures in particular have led to a substantial sea change in the relationship between Parliament and Government. The first is the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which was sold to a perhaps rather unsuspecting House as a means of limiting Executive power, but in the event of a statutory no-confidence vote the Act is silent on what happens afterwards, except for the 14-day period. The Prime Minister may no longer be able to call a general election, but he is no longer obliged to resign either—at least not for 14 days. That has the effect of strengthening the incumbency of a sitting Prime Minister. Of course, that is exactly what it was intended to do—it was intended to cement the coalition in place—but it has left the House with the option to wound rather than kill Governments. I do not think that that has improved the accountability of Governments to Parliament in any way at all.

The second thing that has happened to cause this sea change is the increase in the frequency of the use of referendums. That has consequences too, as many warned, not for the sovereignty of Parliament but, as my right hon. Friend Dr Fox said, for legitimacy, because we now have competing legitimacies in our constitution. What we are hearing is a bitter dispute about whether the representative nature of our democracy is a superior legitimacy to the direct—