Commons Diary: Bernard Jenkin
As a heavily-amended Brexit Bill leaves the Lords and heads to the Commons, Bernard Jenkin says it is now time for the ‘hard-core Remainers’ in his party to learn to compromise
On Monday 12 May, Conservative backbenchers were all off to No 10 for meetings about the Brexit controversy of the hour: NCP (‘new customs partnership’) vs MaxFac (‘maximum facilitation’ of customs checks once the UK leaves the EU customs union). The government has become mired in detail and, to many of us, appears to be losing sight of any EU negotiating strategy. Ministers look mesmerised by the EU blockading real trade talks and their needless threats to the Northern Ireland border. The Whitehall machinery is still paralysed by the shock of the referendum result, so it is inevitable that so much civil service advice is tainted by a dread that Brexit is a bizarre self-inflicted national catastrophe, rather than as a positive fresh start for the UK. Some ex-Permanent Secretaries give the impression their still-serving colleagues must be sabotaging Brexit deliberately, but that undervalues the professionalism and dedication of the vast majority of civil servants.
The vibes from the government is that “everyone will have to compromise” and “nobody will get everything they want”. The ERG, which has backed the Prime Minister and all her statements, is accused of being “the tail that is wagging the dog” and “a party within a party”, which is ironic when you consider that it is the rump of hard-core Remainers in the Conservative party who are threatening to inflict defeat on the Prime Minister with the 15 Lords amendments and new clauses they have added to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. The ERG has already accepted massive compromises on the implementation period, and now more is going to be demanded…
I listened to most of the Grenfell debate in Westminster Hall. Many survivors of the awful catastrophe were there. It was intense and emotional, with moving contributions from all sides – a harrowing reminder of how important it is for our politicians to engage with people’s real lives. It showed how Parliament can give a voice to those without one.
After a PACAC evidence session on pre-appointment hearings on Tuesday 13th May, the next day I take the Chair of another committee, the joint committee on the draft Health Service Safety Investigations Bill. This Bill arises from the PACAC recommendations which recommended the government sets up a new body to investigate clinical incidents in the NHS. The government has already set up HSIB in shadow form, and this government Bill will establish its statutory independence and powers to operate much like the Air Accident Investigation Branch of the Department for Transport. This is vital so that people can be honest about the mistakes that have been made, and the NHS learns the valuable lessons to be taken from their experiences. I reflect this project could be the most significant thing I ever achieve in politics – it should save 1,000s of lives and £billions for the NHS in the years to come.
Later that day, the Lords defeated the government on twice more on amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. The Lords amendments already included one in favour or remaining in the European Economic Area (EEA). Membership of the EEA includes membership of court that, in the words of its own President, “as a rule… follows relevant European Court of Justice case law”. How is this honouring the result of the referendum?
But the issue with these amendments is not about the legitimacy of the House of Lords. It is about what the House of Commons will do with their changes when the bill returns to the Commons. Like the Conservatives and DUP, Labour was elected at the last election on a manifesto to respect the referendum result. Will they do so?
Bernard Jenkin is Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex and Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee