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Government is making mess of retreat on EU Withdrawal Bill

by David Hannay | 16.11.2017

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

It is often said that a successful retreat is the most difficult manoeuvre in the military playbook. The same can probably be said of parliamentary retreats.

So what are we to think of the two “concessions” already made by the government on the EU Withdrawal Bill – and they will certainly not be the last – which had its first two days of debate in the Commons this week?       

The idea of inserting a precise exit date (and even time of day) is a distinctly unwise one, even if it is no more so than what is currently in the Bill which leaves it to David Davis to decide, depending on which side of the bed he gets out on one fine morning in the spring of 2019. It is of course yet another piece of red meat to feed to the Ultra-Brexiters, but none the more sensible for that.

For one thing it discards the option in the text of Article 50 of prolonging the two year cut-off period for a brief or longer time if that should prove desirable to achieve a relatively trouble free course for our exit. So that option is now to follow the single market and the customs union out of the window long before anyone can be sure that it will not prove to be in the general interest on both sides of the Channel.

Then there is the second move by the government: to undertake to bring forward a new piece of primary legislation giving effect in our domestic law to whatever may be agreed in the Article 50 withdrawal treaty and with respect to an implementation, transition or standstill phase. That is probably sensible because it may be a necessary condition for clinching a deal next month on the status of EU citizens. But it imposes some pretty arduous time constraints on the government because, if it is to play that role, its parliamentary course will need to be complete ahead of the exit date.

Moreover, it still says nothing about the parliamentary process in the eventuality of the government deciding on exit without a deal. Subjecting any such high risk course of action to some form of meaningful parliamentary scrutiny and approval is surely a sine qua non for any claim that we are taking back control.       

Last week the prime minister lost two members of her cabinet. Let us hope that the Brexit retreat does not end up like the retreat of the British forces to Jellalabad in the First Afghan War with only one survivor.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon