The EU Withdrawal Bill: A Paradox Too Far?

[Guest article by Jim Blythe]

Implementing the referendum result has certainly produced a fine collection of paradoxes – the Irish border, the Gibraltar question, the “Divorce Bill” and so forth. One of Theresa May’s finest, though, is the EU Withdrawal Bill.

The problem is that leaving the EU’s regulatory system means that much of the law we have come to know and trust will no longer apply. Estimates vary, but one MP has said that it amounts to 83,000 pages of law which will have to be rewritten – and if all that has to be debated in Parliament, nothing else will get done for the next decade or so. The alternative is to expand the Civil Service and get them to rewrite everything, which of course takes democratic accountability out of the picture – taking back control rings a bit hollow if that happens. Professor Michael Dougan told the Treasury Select Committee as much, even before the referendum was held.

But we are where we are. So either Parliament will be caught in a blockage even DynoRod couldn’t clear, or something else will have to happen – hence the EU Withdrawal Bill. This Bill aims to give powers to rewrite law directly to the various Ministries – and Parliament are not happy about being cut out of the picture.

Their response has been to add a lot of amendments onto the Bill – it has been nicknamed “the Christmas tree” by wags in the Strangers’ Bar, because everyone is hanging something on it. Of the 480-plus amendments now dangling from its boughs, two in particular might offer a Get Out Of Jail Free card to Theresa May’s government.

The first, from Chris Leslie, would give Parliament a vote on the final deal, with an option to ask for Article 50 back and remain in the EU. This would come into force should a fixed exit day be set. The second, by Conservative MP and former attorney-general Dominic Grieve, has the same effect – Parliament would be able to vote down any deal worse than membership (which is to say, any deal) and reverse Article 50.  These amendments, NC4 and NC7, will be debated soon and will be voted on.

MPs are, of course, difficult to predict. The situation is complex. The Government is relatively powerless, since they lack an overall majority and can easily lose the support of the loonies from the DUP. The frog might jump either way.

Having said that, either of the two amendments would return Parliamentary sovereignty, and MPs do like to have power. They would also allow Theresa May to say, “Well, we gave it our best shot, but those naughty MPs voted it down and guess what? We have no choice but withdraw Article 50, at least until after the next General Election.” Which they would hope to win in a landslide.

It is obvious that leaving the EU carries too many paradoxes, not to mention the golden idol of the economy, which is front and centre of the debate. These amendments allow the Tories to escape with a single bound – and it’s up to Remain supporters to provide the ammunition allowing them to vote for the amendments.

Looks like a great time to be lobbying MPs.