This week in politics: Rebels, repeal and referenda
The week that was
This was a truly historic week as Theresa May triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and formally began the Brexit process. The much awaited political event divided the mood in the country, which May acknowledged by saying it would be ‘a day of celebration for some and disappointment for others’ as the Sun projected ‘Dover and Out’ on the White Cliffs and a man in Newcastle posted his British passport back, ironically stranding him in Brexit Britain. President of the European Council, Donald Tusk said that ‘we miss you already’ and claimed that the EU would not punitive in the negotiations, describing Brexit as already being ‘punitive enough’ as he set out the negotiating principles of the EU27.
The Government wasted no time in publishing the Legislating for Leaving the EU White Paper on Thursday which set out how the Government aims to complete the mammoth task of incorporating over 40 years of EU law into the British statute book. The Great Repeal Bill will be introduced at the Queen’s Speech but will likely have to be supplemented by additional bills to ensure a transition from EU membership.
Not to miss out on an official letter signing photo-op, Nicola Sturgeon sat on a sofa in Bute House to sign a letter to the Prime Minister, formally requesting a second Scottish referendum following a vote of the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday.
As Europe looks to present a united front, Britain’s opposition parties continued their infighting. Former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone attended his disciplinary hearing for the anti-Semitic remarks he made about the Nazis and Zionism.
Elsewhere, the UKIP National Executive Committee began their celebrations early by tweeting a picture of themselves with glasses of Champagne, toasting the resignation of their only MP Douglas Carswell.
On the benches
An Article 50 baby
During Wednesday’s Commons debate following the triggering of Article 50, Tory MP Jason McCartney began his contribution by congratulating Andrea Jenkyns MP on the birth of her baby. Speaker John Bercow followed up, also congratulating the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) ‘who I think had some hand in the matter as well’. This invoked fits of hysterics from Members who cannot resist the even minor of parliamentary dirty jokes. ‘Well, he had a role, anyway’ the Speaker pointed out – Lopresti is the father. The Prime Minister, unimpressed with the juvenile giggling, replied that she was glad she did not have to clarify the Speaker’s comments.
Dust off the SDP rosette
It is often said at the moment that when George Osborne, Nick Clegg and Tony Blair talk about Brexit they could be from the same party. That almost happened on Thursday when Nick Clegg was seen sitting on the Labour front bench briefing Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Keir Starmer on some of the more intricate measures in the Great Repeal Bill White Paper. Brexit may be splitting the country down the middle but perhaps it will bring together some strange political bedfellows.
Good week/Bad week
Good week for: Nigel Farage. Whatever way you slice it this week was a good week for the former leader of UKIP, now political commentator for Fox News and rabble rouser in chief on LBC, Nigel Farage. With Article 50 formally triggered a lifetimes work of Eurosceptic activism has finally paid off for Farage. Appropriately enough he celebrated with a pint while chatting to journalists. Expect to continue hearing more from the man himself over the next two years as May is left with the tricky task of negotiating a deal that keeps all Britons happy.
Bad week for: Alastair Campbell. A bad week for Tony Blair’s former director of communications who seemed to be on a high last week as he returned to the world of print news as editor of the New European but found himself in a less than courteous debate on Good Morning Britain with Nigel Farage. Making no secret of his embitterment over Brexit, Alastair may have gotten a few things off his chest but the confrontation was perhaps not the best tone to set in his new appointment. We wonder whether Alastair will resolve to take up Nigel’s offer of lunch and bury the hatchet?
‘The United Kingdom wants the European Union to succeed and prosper. Instead, the referendum was a vote to restore, as we see it, our national self-determination’ – Theresa May in her letter to the European Union invoking Article 50
‘We already miss you. Thank you and goodbye’ – President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, upon receiving formal notification of the UK’s intention to secede from the EU
‘The negotiations must first clarify how we will disentangle our interlinked relationship. Only when this question is dealt with can we – hopefully soon after – begin talking about our future relationship’ – German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, on the Brexit negotiations
Tweet of the Week
In focus: The great repeal challenge
One of the Government’s first acts after triggering Article 50 was to provide a degree of clarification on the process behind the ‘Great Repeal Bill’. Calling it a repeal bill is a slight misnomer, given that the purpose of this legislation is actually to repatriate all existing EU law onto the UK statute book.
It is clear that this is a mammoth task, given that estimates of the amount of EU law which already forms part of UK law range between 7,500 and 20,000.
Broadly, the Bill will do four things:
- Convert directly-applicable EU law and regulations into UK law
- Preserve all UK law made to implement EU obligations
- Ensure the individual rights in the EU treaties that can be relied on directly in court will continue to be applicable in UK law
- Provide that historic ECJ case law is given the same binding or precedent status in UK courts
Mass transposition onto the UK statute book alone will not however suffice. Many UK laws either refer to European institutions, include reciprocal arrangements with European bodies or member states, or include the phrase ‘EU law’ within its text.
To solve these issues, the Bill will give ministers wide ranging powers to make these changes through delegated legislation.
Despite the clarity which the Government has provided through this document, a number of questions remain.
- The distinction between ‘technical’ and ‘policy’ changes: The Government has been clear that this Bill is intended to repatriate all powers, not to make policy-based decisions by cherry-picking regulations. However, some Conservative backbenchers will still be tempted to try and amend the legislation to remove certain regulations at this stage.
- Parliament’s ability to handle an extra 1000 statutory instruments in a session: Parliament usually scrutinises around 800 pieces of secondary legislation in a session, but does Parliament have the structures in place to give sufficient time and scrutiny to such an increased amount of legislation? This is further complicated by the need for additional Brexit-related primary legislation on customs and immigration amongst other things.
- Use of Henry VIII powers: Giving the executive the power to make changes to legislation without a higher level of parliamentary scrutiny is seen by many as a subversion of the power of parliamentary oversight. Without it however, the Bill itself would be gargantuan, requiring amendment of every reference to EU institutions or bodies through primary legislation.
- Time limiting delegated powers: To ensure that these wide ranging Henry VIII powers are not abused by ministers, the Government has committed to ‘appropriately time limited’ powers. However, the White Paper does not indicate what this limit will be.
- Role for the devolved administrations: The Scottish Government presents a potentially significant stumbling block to the Great Repeal Bill. SNP Ministers, aggrieved that powers being repatriated in devolved areas such as agriculture may not automatically reside at Holyrood, have stated their intention to ‘obstruct’ the Bill’s passage by refusing to pass a Legislative Consent Motion in its favour. Although Westminster can technically ignore this it could prove to be a politically precarious move as it risks increasing support for Nicola Sturgeon’s ongoing drive for a second vote on independence.