Three days. That was how long the government wants to give to parliament to discuss the legislation that will bring about the most substantial change to the UK’s constitution since it first acceded to the European Union. The full text of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, or the WAB was published Monday night, 110 pages of dense legislation that MPs will be expected to read, digest and critique, before deciding whether to vote in favour of the bill.
A vote that would unshackle the UK from the EU, allowing it to either sail free into the bucolic hinterlands of free trade, or to descend to Hadesian shores, with the lighting of a bonfire of rights and regulations. For MPs to know which path the government is trying to set them on, they need the time and opportunity to debate the legislation meaningfully – something impossible to achieve in three days.
Admittedly, even a cursory reading of the legislation reveals precisely why the government would be desperate to get this bill through with little scrutiny. Most notably, the government has tried to reanimate the possibility of the UK leaving the EU without a deal, creating a new cliff-edge at the end of the transition period, if a free trade deal has not been signed by January 2021.
It is this clause which has presumably drawn in the ERG, like moths to a flame, to support a deal that otherwise chains the UK to EU rules throughout the transition period. To the Europhobes, a small time in Purgatory as vassals to Brussels is a small sacrifice for eternal economic freedom.
This clause alone should render the entire deal unacceptable to moderate Conservatives, let alone those sitting on the opposition benches. Much effort has gone into preventing a cliff-edge Brexit being an option within the Article 50 process, with Hilary Benn and Sir Oliver Letwin, amongst others, having tabled and passed amendments that have kept the UK within the EU until the conclusion of a withdrawal agreement.
The WAB, if passed in its current form, would undo all of their efforts, with the spectre of a no-deal Brexit returning once more under the pretence of being a negotiating tactic, rather than a means of the Europhobes ensuring that they are truly free of the EU, and the world’s largest free trade bloc.
Cannily, the government has tried to Letwin-proof this transition period, with Clause 30 specifying that only the government can propose extensions to the transition period. No longer will it be the gift of backbench MPs to take control of the order paper, forcing the government to prolong the negotiations, but a power that will lay only with the prime minister. Given Johnson’s ardent desire to bring about Brexit as soon as humanly possible, thus retaining his cult-like status within the Conservative party’s membership, it seems improbable, at best, that any such extension will be proposed.
Alongside this, clause 31 of the WAB ties the MPs’ hands during the negotiation stages, requiring that any future trade deal be in accordance with the political declaration that sets out the government’s ambitions for the future long-term trading relationship with the EU. Whilst the legislation does provide for parliament to play a role in drafting a ‘statement on objectives for the future relationship’, this section functions more as lip-service to the notion of parliamentary participation, rather than giving the Commons a real opportunity to guide the government towards an agreement. Given that throughout this period the countdown clock will be ticking, the government is clearly trying to lay the groundwork for placing immense pressure on the Commons to agree whatever the government puts in front of it, with a hard Brexit looming once more in the background.
Set aside the consequences of the WAB for the transition period and the UK’s future relationship, and there is little else in the bill to reassure a sceptical House. Labour have made much of the need to protect workers’ rights, and the Tories have responded by promising to not degrade such rights once outside of the protections of the EU, in much the same way that the wolf promised not to eat the three little pigs.
There is nothing in the WAB that will hold the government to such promises, with this and any other government merely obliged to note in any proposed legislation that it fails to maintain EU standards. With Johnson expecting a swingeing majority to emerge from an imminent general election, should he pass this legislation and lead the UK out of the EU, Labour would have little prospect of inhibiting the very worst instincts of the Tory party.
A glance at the ‘Britannia Unchained’, a Randian screed penned by some of the leading lights in the Cabinet shows the low regard that Raab, Patel and Truss have for workers’ rights. Finally getting their hands on the levers of power will have done little to diminish such zeal.
Such delights are merely the very tip of the WAB iceberg, with even members of the cabinet not fully across the consequences.
Stephen Barclay attempted to argue that there would be no need for exporters in Northern Ireland to complete customs and excise forms to send goods to the UK mainland, before backtracking, acknowledging that the Northern Irish would have to behave as though they were a foreign country, rather than a constituent part of the Union.
It seems probable that much of the government is also not aware of the economic consequences of the WAB, with Sajid Javid, the Chancellor, refusing to reveal the government’s economic impact assessments on the basis that ‘benefits are self-evident’, and that even if the economic benefits were negligible, the deal was good for the ‘fabric of our democracy’.
We are now so deep in Wonderland that the Chancellor has dismissed economic sanity on the basis of a single vote – a vote the people made, it is worth noting, on the back of a promise that it would make them richer.
The government knows that the prospects of getting this legislation through are nil. Indeed, it should be wary of such a bill going through, The Houses of Parliament play an important role in scrutinising and amending legislation. A bill passed in three days will contain all manner of trapdoors which even the government will be unaware of. Setting aside these unintended outcomes, the government’s motivation is clearly to set the stage for a general election. Johnson will inevitably be unable to stomach the amendments that the Commons will force into the bill – whether it be a customs union, or mechanisms to prevent a no deal Brexit once more – and will use this defeat to call, yet again, for a general election.
The opposition parties must be wary of giving in to this siren call, either in putting the bill through or giving Johnson his general election. The consequences of the bill are obvious enough, but the prospects for a general election are hardly any brighter.
Labour has yet to adopt a stance which is coherent to the rest of the electorate, and Johnson will be able to push his ‘get Brexit done’ slogan to the masses, presenting his brand of snake oil as the only way of getting a conclusion. As painful as it may be, the solution is to wait, and for the moderates to finally decide on what they want – a second referendum, a customs union, or something else – and to take control of the order paper once more to get it.