“WHAT is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.“
As the Prime Minister flies back from the G7 meeting in Canada, I hope she will have time at least to sit and stare, perhaps enjoying a well-deserved drink, as next week will be an important one in her premiership.
There are two strands to leaving the European Union. The first is the Article 50 process. This aspect of EU law, provided for under the treaties, required an Act of Parliament to start it — and once presented to the EU it began a two-year process of negotiation about the terms of our departure and the framework for our future relationship.
That the latter is a treaty obligation of the EU often seems to be forgotten, as discussions have focused on what is demanded of us with little thought what the future arrangements will be. The second strand gives effect to our decision to leave in domestic law.
This was initially going to be done through a single Withdrawal Bill, covering both our departure and the implementation of the agreement, followed by supplementary bills reinstating the UK’s ability to act where matters had been part of the EU’s responsibility while we were a member.
Now the Withdrawal Bill will simply give effect to the consequences of leaving, not allowing for details of the departure agreement to be added by secondary legislation.
That will require an act of its own. This is constitutionally proper and Dominic Grieve deserves credit for preventing governmental convenience trumping the correct parliamentary process.This change leaves the Withdrawal Bill as the technical implementation of the referendum decision, rather than a major policy bill.
All the current bill seeks to do is to ensure that on the day we leave the EU, the law continues without interruption. Regulations that now depend on an EU legal base will rely on a domestic one, but not a single regulation will change. That is a matter for another day and a future political argument about how the nation wishes to be regulated.
Some of the opposition to the current bill and the amendments proposed have been about frustrating the referendum result, and were not concerned with improving the text of the proposed law.
In the House of Commons, this is perfectly legitimate. The democratically elected house has every right to frustrate government policy. Not only is it the job of the Opposition to oppose, MPs are entitled to vote in accordance with their long-held views, clearly expressed to the electorate. They are not merely Whips’ voting fodder.
As I have happily voted against the previous government on the European issue, it would be hypocritical of me to complain when others with strong views in the opposite direction do likewise. Unfortunately, the House of Lords has disgracefully broken the constitutional conventions — and some of the speeches made there in an attempt to thwart Brexit have reeked with condescension towards the voters.
The Lords have ignored the Salisbury-Addison Convention that it should not try to stop manifesto commitments. They have passed amendments to change the relationship between the Government and Parliament with no mandate whatever to do so.
At some point, as the upper house no longer accepts the conventions that have served Britain well since the 1940s, they will have to be formalised, with the primacy of the Commons reasserted.
The peers are making the mistake the Tory Lords made in the late 19th century in relation to Liberal governments. Once again, it has become peers against the people — a contest the people always win.
The Commons is different, and I recognise that those of us who want to leave the European Union are asking our fellow Conservatives to accept legislation that goes against some of their most deeply held political beliefs. These are honest and sincere, so accepting the result of the referendum must be bitter gall.
Nonetheless, I think it is reasonable to expect the Government‘s position to command support. In this process, everyone has had to make compromises within the broader context of leaving the EU. People like me do not like the transition period when we will be a vassal state, nor the £39billion payment, which is excessive. But we have accepted it from a mix of loyalty to the Prime Minister and the need to find common ground.
In the Withdrawal Bill, amendments have been accepted which limit the Government’s flexibility in exit talks and put specific obstacles in its way.
A number were agreed in the Commons and of the further 15 Lords amendments, the Government has agreed to one and accepted the principle of four others, but it wants to defeat the rest. It has agreed to enhanced Parliamentary scrutiny of the exit deal, special arrangements in Northern Ireland and to negotiate for the rights of asylum seekers.
It rejects being a customs union or joining the European Economic Area — a market comprising the EU members plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway — either of which would trample on the manifesto commitments made last year.
Ultimately, this bill is NOT the future relationship with Europe. It is a technical one making UK law work once we leave. But the Lords has used it as a Christmas tree to add its favourite EU baubles to. The Commons ought to ensure the law actually works and is effective.
There will inevitably be further debates over what the end result is but that is not the purpose of this bill. It deserves support, not least from Tories who stood on a manifesto saying this is what we would do.