The recent Brexit-related goings-on in the  UK Parliament seem, in some minds at least, to have thrown up a crucial question: is Britain’s “sovereign” Parliament as important – or as sovereign – as we assume? There can be heard the steady drumbeat of those who think Parliament is a secondary part of the British constitution – and should stand aside to let the Government govern.
This is in contrast to, say, the barrister Lord Pannick in the second constitutional case launched by Gina Miller (R (Miller) v The Prime Minister 2019) on Boris Johnson’ prorogation of Parliament. Pannick was at pains to suggest, contrary to the generally held constitutional view, that Parliament (rather than simply laws passed by Parliament) was sovereign and so the Prime Minister’s power to prorogue (end the parliamentary session, dismissing MPs and peers until a new session is called) should be open to judicial oversight regarding the legality of its use, like most actions of the Executive.
The argument against Parliament
So the question arises, which is the premier body in the British constitution, which is top dog: the Executive or the Legislature? As it happens, the historian Robert Tombs had answered this question to his own satisfaction in the Times some weeks before in a piece headlined: Parliament has no right to plot a Brexit coup.
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So, in light of the Brexit deadlock, we need a “Government of National Unity” according to the former UK Prime Minister Sir John Major (and others). But how do we get from here to there? He (and others) are pretty clear that a General Election would be divisive, time-wasting and pointless – not least since the two main parties are as divided amongst themselves as they are between one another. No clear “will of the people” is likely to emerge.
On top of which no one can trust the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his adviser, Dominic Cummings, not to fiddle the election date for political purpose, such as sneaking Britain out of the EU without a deal.
What are the constitutional options? Parliament, or more specifically, the House of Commons, has the power to bring down a Government in a vote of no confidence. The assumption is that this would probably lead to a General Election (under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) if no other MP was “best placed” to take over as PM. But there is also a useful traditional power for MPs to vote out the Government and then replace it without an election.
This might be a handy ploy if there really is enough cross-party opposition to Boris Johnson’s government – and majority support among MPs for some other way out of the Brexit maze. It would mean more than simply “Parliament taking control” with the occasional anti-No Deal vote. If Parliament really wants control over deciding how Britain leaves the EU, it also needs a Government to bring its wishes into effect.
The UK Parliament is sovereign – but do those who know of and respect this constitutional principle really understand how limited Parliament’s sovereignty is? Much has been said of parliamentary sovereignty in light of Brexit: by those who wish to leave the European Union to reestablish UK parliamentary sovereignty; but also by those who feel Parliament could wrest decision-making about how the UK actually leaves from the flailing Government.
In fact Parliament is not sovereign in the sense that the collective will of MPs and/or Peers in the House of Lords holds sway. It is parliamentary legislation that is, in effect, sovereign. In the traditional formulation “the Crown in Parliament” is sovereign, meaning legislation having passed its three stages in the Commons, Lords and Royal Assent will be recognised by the courts. And, for the most part, it is the Government that brings legislation to Parliament, not individual MPs or Peers (though there are exceptions: see below).
One thing MPs can do is bring down the Government in a vote of no confidence. The assumption is that this leads to a General Election (under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) – but there is also a useful traditional power for MPs to vote out the Government – and replace it without an election. This might be a handy ploy if there is enough cross-party opposition the Government’s Brexit approach – though it would amount to a parliamentary coup. The implications are looked at below (subhead: Bringing down the Government) and here in mor detail: Government of national unity? Possibly.
But generally in the great Brexit debate, Parliament has found itself somewhat constrained – hence some of the innovative procedural schemes that have come forward thanks to Dominic Grieve and others to allow backbenchers to “take back control”.
Here are some of what seem to this writer crucial exchanges during the third day of the Brexit High Court case R (Miller and Santos) v Secretary of State. They concentrate on exchanges between the judges in the case and the lawyers. The original runs to 160 pages. The digested version of the first day is here. And the second day is here. The links to the transcripts appear at the bottom along with quoted cases and comment. (Note, some page numbers are included; they come at the bottom of the relevant pages ie refer to the text above). A report on the Supreme Court case is here: What if Eadie was right?
The third day of this case (Oct 18)
James Eadie QC on how the Article 50 notification process would work. He notes “there will on any view be considerable further Parliamentary involvement in the future” to which the Lord Chief Justice replied “Mm-hm”.
MR EADIE: [I]f there was an Article 50(2) withdrawal agreement, that would be a treaty between the United Kingdom and the EU.
THE LORD CHIEF JUSTICE: Yes.
MR EADIE: As such, it is likely that it will come within the procedures in CRAG [Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010]. … It will be a treaty, but I say likely to fall within the procedures within CRAG, because CRAG, like the Ponsonby memorandum which it sought to embody … CRAG only applies to treaties which are subject to a formal process of ratification. See, amongst other things, section 25(3) and (4), and indeed the process of ratification which is the cornerstone of the Act in section 20. Now, almost all treaties are, but not all treaties are, subject to ratification. In other words you can on the international plane enter into an agreement without ratification necessarily following … those agreements do happen but they are pretty rare, and it is considered very likely that this agreement, if entered into, in other words the 50(2) agreement, would be a treaty requiring ratification. Of course one can’t exclude the theoretical possibility that it wouldn’t be.
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Here is the second part of what seem to this writer crucial exchanges during the Brexit High Court case R (Miller and Santos) v Secretary of State for those not wishing to read the 580-odd pages of the transcript. It mainly contains Eadie’s second day arguments on behalf of the Government. They look mostly at questions put by the judges in the case and the answers. The links to the transcripts appear at the bottom along with quoted cases and comment. The digested version of the first day is here. And the third day is here. A report/analysis of the Supreme Court case is here: What if Eadie was right?
The second day of the case (Oct 17)
Ms MOUNTFIELD: Since the passage of the European Communities Act, no EU treaty has ever been ratified without prior Parliamentary authority, and I submit that that is necessary because of the two otherwise inconsistent constitutional principles. The Crown can make treaties, but not if, or to the extent, that they confer rights or impose liabilities in domestic law, or withdraw rights and liabilities in domestic law. I say that the consequence of that is that while the European Communities Act is in force, the prerogative power, either to make further treaties or to amend treaties, or to withdraw from treaties is impliedly abrogated, because otherwise it would be the Crown and not Parliament which would be conferring or withdrawing rights.If there is any doubt about that, section 2 of the European Union Act expressly provides that the Crown may not ratify a treaty which amends or replaces the existing treaties without Parliamentary authority, through various procedures.
I submit that since the purpose of that provision is to prevent the Crown from altering the foundations of EU law as it applies within the UK without Parliamentarysanction, and we have quoted William Hague introducing the 2011 Act saying that, by necessary implication, that restriction extends to any act of the Crown which would withdraw from or revoke those treaties without Parliamentary sanction, and thereby remove directly enforceable rights.
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Here are some of what seem to this writer crucial exchanges during the Brexit High Court case R (Miller and Santos) v Secretary of State. mainly to do with Lord Pannick’s first day arguments for the claimants. The links to the transcripts appear at the bottom along with quoted cases and comment. A report/analysis of the Supreme Court case is here: What if Eadie was right?
Firstly, two extracts from the first day of this case (Oct 13)
Exchange between Lord Justice Sales and Lord Pannick QC (for Miller) at page 54/55 of the draft transcript:
SALES LJ: Am I right in thinking that you say that the effect of the argument for the government would be that there wouldn’t need to be a repeal of the 1972 Act or section 2 of it, it is just that the content of the obligation in section 2, EU rights, would fall away, because they would cease to be EU rights?
16 LORD PANNICK: Precisely. Your Lordship is very aware and I am not going to enter into any political debate, but your Lordship knows that the government have announced that there is going to be a great repeal bill which is to be produced some time in the next session. I say that the consequence of the defendant giving notification will be that at a point in the future, it is inevitably the case that the United Kingdom leaves the EU and the consequence of that, as a matter of law, is that all of the rights enjoyed under section 2(1) and
section 3(1), which is the process rights relating to the Court of Justice, fall away. There is simply nothing left. And therefore a great repeal bill, politically or otherwise, may be desirable. I say nothing about that. It will not affect those questions. Those rights will fall away as a consequence of the United Kingdom leaving the EU. Because when we leave, there are no treaty obligations. That is the whole point of leaving. And indeed that is the government’s intention. This is not a happenstance, this is the whole point of notification. Notification is intended to remove the current substance of section 2(1) and 3(1). Continue reading
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