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Analysis

Landslide would turn Theresa May into Henry VIII

by Nick Kent | 24.04.2017

The prime minister told the Sun that one reason she called a snap election was because she didn’t want arguments over her ill-named Great Repeal Bill. If Theresa May gets the landslide she’s predicted to receive, she will assume so-called Henry VIII powers, giving her the ability to change a vast array of rules and regulations with only limited parliamentary oversight.

As we have explained before, the Great Repeal Bill is a vast circular exercise in changing the law to keep it the same. On day one, nothing is repealed; all the EU rules are simply copied and pasted into UK law. This is to cut the risk that British businesses will face chaos when we leave the EU. It is rather obscure and highly technical, so why should the prime minister claim it was a factor in her deciding to hold the general election?

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The reason is there was no mention of this Bill in the Tories’ 2015 election manifesto. So as things stand, the House of Lords is free to vote how it likes on the Bill. But under the so-called Salisbury Doctrine, an unwritten but invariably observed constitutional rule, peers do not vote against Bills that have been foreshadowed in a government’s election manifesto. If May wins the election with a commitment to introduce the Bill, the Lords will not be able to oppose it.

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Ministers want to put wide-ranging powers into the Bill that will enable them to act outside of Parliament by Order, rather than bringing decisions under the Bill to Parliament for approval. This Henry VIII power goes to the heart of the debate about what kind of Brexit we will be getting. Will we be taking back control or just handing even more powers to ministers?

Some MPs think that a Bill of this importance should be carefully scrutinised by Parliament and only contain powers that are absolutely necessary. But a landslide in the election would cut the risk that a coalition led by Labour and joined by some pro-Remain Tories might amend, or even block, the Bill. They just wouldn’t have the numbers.

What’s more, pro-Remain Tory MPs would find themselves boxed in after the election if,  as the Daily Mail claims, the Conservatives put their key Brexit pledges including a commitment to the Great Repeal Bill in their manifesto. They will then be under huge pressure not to rebel, giving May almost unlimited power to force through whatever kind Brexit deal she negotiates. The only alternative will be to mimic what several Brexit supporters did in 1997 when they promised never to support joining the euro, in defiance of John Major’s manifesto pledge to leave the question open.

Edited by Hugo Dixon