David Davis’s Apocalypse Now

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 13.07.2017

Listen closely. Do you hear it? The commons is quiet – too quiet. Former SAS reservist – and current Brexit minister – David Davis fears an ambush. The government has published its so-called “Repeal Bill”, and the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg says the opposition benches are preparing for “parliamentary guerrilla warfare”.

In a gloriously Orwellian bit of naming, the primary function of the bill is to ensure that no EU legislation is in fact repealed, but merely confirmed as British law when Brexit happens. The glaring exception to this is the Charter of Fundamental Rights which the bill states will have no effect after Brexit day – and this alone may be enough to ensure its defeat.

Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, has promised that his party will vote against the bill unless the Charter is incorporated into UK law. Combined with the votes of other opposition parties and a handful of moderate Conservatives, they might well be able to block its progress through Parliament.

This is not the only line they seek to set in red. The repeal bill contains a number of so-called ‘Henry VIII’ provisions, which would allow government ministers to adjust the EU laws copied over into UK law, to correct ‘deficiencies’, without seeking parliamentary approval. They would thus evade effective parliamentary scrutiny, and the Labour benches are understandably keen to block or minimise their use.

Policy goals are not the only potential catalysts for a bruising government defeat. As with many guerilla conflicts, the immediate war between disparate interests is a proxy battle for something greater. The Lib Dems want to stop Brexit entirely, and are keen to inflict damaging defeats on May. The Labour party wants another election, and would enjoy a replay of the Maastricht debacle of the 90s, when a two-clause bill took 41 days (and many nights) to win approval. Sensible conservatives want a soft Brexit, but also want to cling onto power. Hardline Brexiters fear any setback could cause the whole project to unravel.

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This makes the arithmetic in the Commons tricky. But there is another complication for the government. They do not have a majority in the Lords, where many peers no longer feel bound by the Salisbury Convention, which prevents legislation set out in a party’s election manifesto from being blocked indefinitely in the upper house. They argue that May’s failure to win a majority renders the convention void. In this light, May’s attempt to reach out to Corbyn and the Labour party can be seen as a way of saving face when the opposition has the power to force concessions.

There is a small chance that for all the sound and fury, the bill could pass without major upset. Conservatives keen to avoid a second election may balk at rebellion, and if the party whips have done their job, the most contentious elements will be fudged. Alternatively, the Conservatives could offer compromises in other policy areas. However, this assumes a minimum of competence on the government side.

Davis has coined a new soundbite, saying the bill will provide “certainty, continuity and control”. You can look forward to hearing that line trotted out time and again in the coming months, following May’s tired refrains of “Brexit means Brexit”, “strong and stable leadership”, “deep and special partnership”, etc.

But it is unlikely to do what Davis declares. There is uncertainty about its passage and its durability. If it passes, the prospect of laws being changed by ministerial whim will create more uncertainty. As a law designed to break with existing structures, it clearly cannot provide complete continuity. And while the bill does provide control, that is only for the government, not for a sovereign parliament. It is another Orwellian misuse of terminology.

Edited by Quentin Peel

3 Responses to “David Davis’s Apocalypse Now”

  • As ever, the bottom line is that the country is still at the mercy of the consciences and courage of both Tory and Labour Remain MPs.

    Until these elected representatives get a grip and vote in line with their own beliefs and those of their constituents, we remain doomed.

    It really is a most pathetic spectacle of moral cowardice and self-serving abrogation of democratic responsibility.

  • I very much agree with Adrian Webster. The Remain MPs have been a bitter disappointment over the past year – putting Party above country. They were bullied into accepting that the outcome of a misconceived consultative referendum represented the ‘will of the people’ and that they had to proceed with national castration – against their better judgement – in the name of ‘democracy’. That is not how representative democracy is meant to work.

    John Major eventually forced Maastricht through on a confidence motion. The question is whether enough Tory Remainers will be prepared to see the Government fall rather than to continue over the cliff edge.