As Monday night slipped into Tuesday morning (minus the chimes from Big Ben) and MPs voted on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, I found myself on Abingdon Green just outside Parliament on a special CNN Talk panel show. It was cold, dark, no-one really knew what was happening and we all bickered a lot. It was the perfect metaphor for Brexit. Only bettered by political journalist Kevin Schofield, formerly of this parish, who tweeted a wee video of three rodents fighting over a scrap of fish skin on the House of Commons terrace – mice not men, before you ask.
Brexit is ratcheting up. Goody gum drops a nation cries! It is the only show in town for domestic politics for the foreseeable future and as the clock ticks we seem to be no closer to even warming up for the proper negotiations in Brussels and the level of division over the issue shows no sign of calming down.
The vote on Monday night was the most important parliamentary moment since MPs voted to trigger Article 50 back in March and begins the parliamentary business of Brexit.
The bill was designed to make sure that the minute we leave the EU we have this seamless transition and all the laws which are cruelly being held hostage in that nasty Belgian place magically fly across the Channel and come home to the mother of all parliaments here in Blighty where nothing bad ever happens. FACT.
Now, of course there has to be a substantial piece of work that will be needed to transfer the thicket of EU legislation into British law. There are many thousands of pieces of law that do need to be transferred on to our statute books. It is a huge piece of work.
It should have really been called the Great Adoption Bill with a guarantee that all relevant existing EU laws would be transferred to the statute book. Then if the Government wanted to the change anything they should have sought to do it in the usual fashion. The thing that makes this bill so egregious is the fact that it contains a clause which gives ministers sweeping powers to change legislation they don’t like by issuing regulations which elected MPs couldn’t scrutinise and challenge in the usual way.
That is at the heart of the opposition to the bill. It is actually nothing to do with Brexit or not listening to the will of the people – quite the opposite. No-one voted to leave the EU to give sweeping powers to Conservative MPs – the idea that “take back control” really meant “give junior ministers the right to sneak changes through without any scrutiny.”
As many MPs pointed out last night in the debate, many British people voted leave because they were frustrated at the idea of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels being able meddle with the laws of this land with no challenge. Well, that is precisely what this bill would risk. Civil servants could make suggestions to legislation which ministers agree and it is all done via secondary legislation, bypassing MPs.
It is a vital function of British democracy that government ministers – the executive – should not have unfettered and untrammelled powers. It is one of the aspects of our democracy that makes us admired and indeed held up as a beacon of good governance.
Senior Tories and Brexiteers know all of this is well dodgy and have sought to assuage concerns by saying the two words that strike fear into the hearts of any right-minded person: “trust us . . .” Hmmmm. Because politicians are the last people you would ever expect to indulge in a spot of abuse of power. Am I right? Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
My more right leaning pro-Brexit panellists on CNN Talk were citing the fact that because Tory Remainers were going to obey the Tory whip and vote for this bill, this somehow was a sign about how reasonable it all was and that there was really nothing to fear. That is nonsense. Of course, Tory MPs would want to vote for this because it gives the Conservative Party the power and ability to do many of the ideological things it really, really wants to do. It is not a state secret that the Tories have, for a long time, wanted to water down important workers’ rights and equality laws – also known as “red tape” or “PC gone maaaaaad”. In 2012 they asked a chap called Adrian Beecroft to look at options for scrapping workers’ rights which was eventually shelved only because they couldn’t make them happen. And when Harriet Harman introduced the 2010 Equality Act (when I was her Special Adviser) her opposite number opposed it and that person was none other than the member for Maidenhead, one Theresa May. So, the idea that the Tories will be not be madly tempted to use their new sweeping powers to tinker with legislation is for the birds.
It is also worth noting that many people who voted for the great Tory Grab Bill are exactly the same people who were so dead against proposals to look at press regulation and cited the same concerns as those who oppose the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. When the Government came up with a rather modest proposals to create a more independent system of newspaper regulation, the argument cited was that allowing politicians and ministers any possible scope – even if it was tenuous – to interfere with the law would be the thin end of the wedge and unacceptable. If those arguments and concerns were right then, why have they been forgotten about now? If David Davis was not a Cabinet minister, and if a Labour government had proposed something like this, he would have spoken out against this as an affront to democracy. Which it is.
And there’s more on that front folks. The tradition of this country is that you can’t get a new law through parliament without it going through a series of hoops in both the Commons and Lords. One of the most important hoops is the Committee stage in the Commons which is where MPs go through the bill line by line and carry out forensic scrutiny, debate, amend and vote. This one of the most vital parts of parliamentary democracy. The Government is now trying to fix the balance of power on these important committees so the Conservatives have a majority. Theresa May is trying to rig the rules of the game to give her a majority in these important committees that the public failed to give her at the general election. She failed to win a majority in the country so she is trying to fake one in parliament. The combination of controlling committees and giving ministers unfettered sweeping powers amounts to a terrible abuse of power.
So here we are. In a huge big fat, dangerous domestic mess as a result of Brexit and all this really has nothing to do with the European Union. The public will soon see through this desperate, naked power grab by Theresa May and her handling of this terrible Henry VIII Bill may well contribute to her political head one day being for the chop.