Expert View

May has her Withdrawal Act… but road ahead is no easier

by David Hannay | 22.06.2018

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

No doubt many people would have greatly preferred it if what is now the EU Withdrawal Act had contained clear and detailed provisions for the parliamentary handling of a “no deal” outcome to the Brexit negotiations, as proposed by the House of Lords last Monday. Instead we have got a lot of fudge.

But if the government believes that they can turn up on January 21 next year (as they are now required to do by the Act), report to Parliament that there will be no deal and that we are going to crash out of the EU in less than three months time, and Parliament will just acquiesce and let them tickle its tummy, they are likely to be in for a rude shock. Far more likely that would trigger a full-blown governmental crisis.

In any case, in the two more likely eventualities than a “no deal” – a really bad deal (usually called “hard Brexit”) or a slightly less bad deal based on Theresa May surrendering most of her present red lines (usually called “soft Brexit”) – the parliamentary procedures are indeed now clear and detailed. And they require the Commons to approve any deal before it can be ratified and for the Lords to have their say too. So we have got a bit more than two thirds of a meaningful process, thanks to the exertions of cross-party alliances in both Lords and Commons.

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More than that, a bill which originally contained no reference at all to the border between the two parts of Ireland now has a clear and binding provision preventing new border controls. So the contradictions between the government’s determination to leave the customs union and the single market and the need to avoid new border controls is now hard-wired into our domestic law.

Add to that further important amendments, which make those 11 months of hard slog in Parliament seem almost worthwhile:

  • the government’s new environmental watchdog will now have teeth, enabling it to prosecute infringements;
  • parliamentary input into post-Brexit primary and secondary legislation has been considerably strengthened;
  • better provisions for re-uniting families of asylum seekers;
  • a potential opening towards the UK remaining in a customs union with the EU.

The adoption of this Act does not make the road ahead in the Brexit negotiations any easier or less strewn with elephant traps into which the government’s hapless negotiating team are all too likely to fall. Next week’s European Council will demonstrate that the government has wasted another three months of precious negotiating time since the Council last met getting absolutely nowhere – and that Brexit is now even further down the EU’s list of “must do” issues its 27 members are willing to devote the limited amount of political will at their disposal.

Then there is the White Paper promised for July, which is all too likely to contain more helpings of fudge and unachievable aspirations. The government’s Customs and Trade Bills are due to come back to Parliament, offering a clear opportunity to press for abandonment of the red line on a customs union. And producing that other White Paper, on immigration, is hardly going to be a walk in the park.

One could almost feel sorry for the government if they were not the principal architects of their own predicament. The amount of road down which cans are able to be kicked is running out. And running out of road usually precedes a car crash.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

2 Responses to “May has her Withdrawal Act… but road ahead is no easier”

  • From what I’ve seen of Parliament recently, I suspect they will not just roll over and let the government tickle their tummy. They will huff and puff a lot, then they will roll over and tickle their own tummy.

  • Will someone please take a moment to wake up Corbyn and alert him to the gravity of our situation? He could be reminded of his position and that his responsibility is to the population of the UK, not a minority of Tory thugs and their mysterious backers. Please and thank you.