Is Cameron facing defeat over the EU Bill tomorrow? Some have flagged up that prospect though we suspect the Bill will see it through tomorrow's debate in the Commons unscathed (backbench Tory MPs have differing priorities, Labour MPs are a bit all over the place and Lib Dems are not flip-flopping for a change - you work out the odds).
The so-called ‘sovereignty clause’ within the Government’s EU Bill is currently the subject of some criticism and debate, and this is the part that will come up for discussion in Parliament tomorrow (the rest of the Bill will be left for the following week or later).
Some important questions have been raised about the sovereignty clause but, arguably, they relate more to domestic concerns about the constitutional role of Parliament than the UK's relationship with the EU (though a link clearly exists). Irrespective of the merits of arguments on either side, the sovereignty clause should not be confused with the 'referendum lock' (which the vast majority of the Bill is concerned with) that seeks to identify areas where EU power can be extended and introduce some national controls on them.
These are two discussions that should have always remained separate.
The Government, and William Hague specifically, argues that Clause 18 of the Bill “confirms and affirms the position that EU law in this country is only recognised by virtue of the authority of acts of Parliament.” The Government says that it is attempting to “address concerns that the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty may in the future be eroded by decision of the courts”.
But some backbench Tory MPs have noted that the Government’s assertion, in the explanatory notes, that the Bill reinforces the “common law principle that EU law takes effect in the UK through the will of Parliament and by virtue of an Act of Parliament” contradicts this very aim. As Bernard Jenkin MP argued yesterday, “The common law is judge-made law. The judges are its authors and its guardians. They may change it whenever they see fit.”
The argument goes like this: by legally rooting Parliamentary sovereignty in common law, the Government would in fact be inviting judges to become more involved, leading to the logical extension that, if Parliament is sovereign because of a decision of the courts, the courts can just as easily change their minds. As Jenkin notes, Parliament is sovereign because Parliament is sovereign. This is the principle of the UK’s constitutional settlement.
A valid question is also whether Clause 18 was necessary at all? Did anyone really dispute whether Parliament could choose to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act at any point in time should it want to? (the Commons EU Scrutiny Committee's report and evidence on the topic is pretty interesting if anyone should have the appetite to trawl through it).
It is no accident that it is the EU that has sparked this debate. The lack of a formal written constitution leaves the UK hugely exposed to the EU’s centralising instincts.
But confusing this discussion with the other, in our view, more important aspect of the Bill, the referendum lock (we wouldn't rule out that the Government may have done this intentionally) runs the risk that MPs do not focus enough of their energies on closing the loopholes in the Bill that deal with transfers of power to the EU. We have identified several relating to justice and home affairs but there are also other areas where the Bill needs tightening up, and Tory MPs have done a good job in tabling sensible amendments. These amendments would strengthen Parliament's de facto powers the second the Bill came into force. That would be a step forward for parliamentary democracy, and a very practical one at that.
Constitutional debates about the role of Parliament are of course important but they will also no doubt roll on. However, this may be the only chance to get the practical measures within the Bill right and in our view they should therefore be the primary focus for MPs.