Sunak won't see the Cash over Northern Ireland
The prime minister declines to appear in front of the European Scrutiny Committee on the Windsor Framework, but select committees aren't always the best way forward
In one sense, this is hardly breaking news: Sir William Cash, the veteran Conservative MP for Stone, is agitated about a lack of scrutiny over a European matter and feels that the government is proposing a fait accompli. That has been a staple of Westminster news since Cash joined the House of Commons at a by-election in May 1984. The trigger this time is a report from the European Scrutiny Committee, which Sir William chairs, published on Monday, entitled The Windsor Framework and Prime Ministerial accountability.
The report is, in essence, a heartfelt cry of dismay from the jilted. Because the framework is “by any standards both legally and politically complicated”, in the committee’s view, it “demands close scrutiny and attention by those with specialist EU law and policy expertise”. That, of course, mean the European Scrutiny Committee. The report goes on to note that the committee was created specifically for this kind of scrutiny, which is more or less true: Standing Order No. 143 stipulates the committee’s purpose as being “to examine European Union documents”, though, until the UK left the European Union, these were usually much more mundane papers from the Commission and elsewhere. The European Scrutiny Committee was traditionally an internal-facing clearing house, which sifted documents and, on the basis of specialist advice, pass them, seek further information or recommend them for debate.
I should confess an interest here. For a very short period, I was a “clerk adviser” on the committee, assisting with the initial assessment and sifting of documents. It was high-resolution, detailed work, very unlike that of most committees, and the meetings of the committee tended to be private and conducted briskly with an eye on the sheer volume of work. While there was an overarching responsibility to be aware of broad political developments in Brussels—I remember in particular the development of the Digital Single Market strategy—this was very much in the background. The very considerable expertise of the committee secretariat, while included former civil servants from a variety of Whitehall departments as well as legal specialists, was focused on the examination of the flood of documents which came in from the EU.
This is, therefore, somewhat off the beaten track for the European Scrutiny Committee. However, the committee feels that the prime minister has not only missed a trick in refusing to give evidence but has in some way let the House down.
Appearing before us would have provided the Prime Minister with an opportunity to discharge what we consider to be his obligation to the House to subject the Windsor Framework to close and detailed parliamentary scrutiny.
The report also notes that, on 27 February, the prime minister promised Cash that he would engage in “dialogue” with him over the framework, a commitment it seems the committee has interpreted very specifically. It goes on to admit that Sunak is scheduled to appear before the Liaison Committee (the body made up of all select committee chairs) on 28 March. However, it adds, rather sniffily, “the Liaison Committee was not, however, constituted to inquire into matters relating to EU law and policy, as we explicitly were”.
In a limited way, this snark is accurate. The Liaison Committee is, however, required under Standing Order No. 145(2) to “hear evidence from the Prime Minister on matters of public policy”. It is very difficult to argue that the implementation of the Windsor Framework does not fall into this category; and while “public policy” is indeed a very broad term, the important part of the phrase is “Prime Minister”.
Since the departmental select committee system was created in 1979, it has been the convention that the prime minister does not appear in front of individual committees. The reasons are not difficult to understand: for the head of government to give evidence would be hugely undermining of the minister in charge of the relevant department, either implying he or she was not in charge or encouraging the media to examine the public statements of both to find the slightest nuance of difference between them. Moreover, it would open the floodgates to an impossible torrent of demand. Once the prime minister agreed to give evidence to one committee, which would be a high-profile event (and committee chairs and members adore publicity), every committee would seek evidence from the PM. And as head of government he or she is responsible for all public policy, so it would be impossible to claim a lack of standing.
Sensibly, therefore, the convention has developed that the prime minister does not give evidence to individual committees, and it is generally regarded as so pointless as to be bad form to ask. The quid pro quo is that the prime minister will appear before the Liaison Committee, now generally three times a year, to answer questions on the full spectrum of government activity. (I wrote more fully about the accountability of the prime minister last year.) This is not a perfect system: the Liaison Committee is too large, at 36 members, to function coherently as a body, so only a selection of chairs are chosen to lead in any evidence session with the prime minister. In addition, because the committee meetings infrequently, and its members are grandees, it does not have the experience, as departmental committees do, of acting cohesively. The members do now know each other intimately, accept each other’s foibles or know their bugbears. So it is a stiff and formalised business. But it is what we have and it works acceptably.
What is the message you should take away from this minor brouhaha? That it is largely manufactured. Cash has led his committee to endorsing a report which asks for something it knows it will not get, then shakes its head more in sorrow than in anger when it is denied. It gives the game away by its denial when it says that it “did not take the decision to invite the Prime Minister to give evidence lightly” (a phrase which essentially says ‘We know the prime minister doesn’t do this but we’re special’). It adds that the Windsor Framework is “one of the most consequential developments in the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU”. That may be true. The problem is that we have been here before.
The truth which everybody in Westminster knows but will not say outright is that Bill Cash, while courteous and reasonable in person, is a Euro-bore. He has always been so. He has chaired the European Scrutiny Committee since 2010, and has sat on it, off and on (mostly on), since 1985: approaching 40 years. The late Simon Hoggart, writing in 2011, described him as being “like the man with staring eyes who stumbled up and down Oxford Street with a placard declaring the end of the world to be nigh”, and with Cash the end of the world always emanates from Brussels. No-one doubts his extensive knowledge of European matters, but by the same token very few hearts rise when he stands up to speak in the Commons. Possessed of a grave, funereal manner, he was already the boy who cried wolf on Europe when he led the opposition to the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s; he once told Lady Thatcher that the best insights into Brussels politics came from The Daily Telegraph’s correspondent, a young Oxford graduate called Boris Johnson, even though it is now recognised that a considerable portion of the future premier’s output was purest fiction, confected to discredit the European Commission (an enterprise in which it needed no assistance).
We see this again with the European Scrutiny Committee’s report. It is, like Sir William, serious, sonorous and slightly orotund. It is well aware of the dignity of its status, and it is steeped in an outlook that makes Eeyore look like a Dexedrine addict. It anticipates—no, it relies on—the failure of its apparent demand to give it potency, and it will be used to mourn at length the prime minister’s failure to allow “detailed scrutiny” of the Windsor Framework. Still, you say, at least it comes from a cross-party source and carries the imprimatur of the whole House of Commons. Well, yes and no: if you look at the formal minutes in the back of the report (no-one does but I was a clerk and we all have our crosses to bear), you will see that the report was agreed by only five members, which is, coincidentally, the quorum of the European Scrutiny Committee: that is, it is the absolute minimum number of MPs required for the committee to transact any business. Moreover, of those five, four—Cash, Richard Drax, Craig Mackinlay and Greg Smith—are Conservatives, while the fifth, Gavin Robinson, is the DUP Member for Belfast East (the DUP was one of the only parties to campaign in favour of Brexit). And I suspect the meeting to agree the report did not last long: probably about 15 minutes.
Essentially this is Cash’s report. That is no smoking gun: committee reports are drafted in the chair’s name, with varying amounts of input from the chair, and if the rest of the committee is not especially motivated or interested, they are often passed largely on the nod. But it is, I think, important context here. I don’t blame Cash for taking this tack to highlight what he sees as a potential lacuna in scrutiny of the Windsor Framework, but I do reserve the right to point to the circumstances of the report in response.
The House of Commons is not very good at scrutinising international agreements. It is getting better, taking its lead from the House of Lords which recently established an International Agreements Committee (currently chaired by Lady Hayter of Kentish Town), but the processes are in their infancy. My friend Alex Horne, a former legal adviser in Parliament and eminent public law and human rights barrister, is the man to consult on such matters, and I commend his published work to readers. The Windsor Framework may be a significant breakthrough in the relationship between the UK and the European Union, as well as in politics within Northern Ireland, though we await the final judgement of the Democratic Unionist Party and the approval (or not) of the House of Commons. But the current stramash is all about Bill Cash, rather than about the prime minister evading proper scrutiny. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.