Could The Great Repeal Act Herald The Dawn Of A 'Progressive Alliance' As A Serious Force In British Politics?

04/10/2016 16:44
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The opening weekend of the Tory Party Conference revealed that the Prime Minister Theresa May appears to be navigating towards a 'Hard Brexit', while the new Chancellor Philip Hammond has emerged as the champion of a 'Soft Brexit' or, in the latest parlance, a "partial Brexit". It was also the moment the new Prime Minister chose to unveil her new Brexit super-plan, the Great Repeal Act.

The Great Repeal Act is as bonkers as it is simplistic in its approach. The thought is this: import the full body of EU legislation into domestic UK legislation in one fell swoop, and then going forward chip away by means of further legislation, removing the bits of the legislation that you don't like. In essence, this will allow the Tories to cherry-pick the parts of employment law that they like (which is perhaps not much of it) and to, somewhat unceremoniously, jettison the rest of it. The same goes of course for the full gamut of legislative areas covered by European law, including environmental law.

The other major facet of the Great Repeal Act is a forward-looking provision which provides for the automatic repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 upon the date of the UK's formal departure from the European Union.

The proposal appears to be that the Great Repeal Bill will be introduced in the Queen's Speech in May 2017, a month or two following the time that May has said she plans to trigger Article 50. So the timetable looks something like this: March/April 2017 Article 50 triggered, UK opens negotiations with the EU27 and the key institutions of the European Union; May 2017 the Great Repeal Bill is included in the Queen's Speech, to be passed as an Act of Parliament during the ensuing year of parliamentary business; March/April 2019 two years from trigger of Article 50, assuming (i) no extension is granted and (ii) Article 50 is not revoked, the UK will exit the European Union at this time and, in the absence of relevant trade agreements, will revert to WTO trading rules and tariffs (assuming the UK leaves the Single Market as part of the 'leaving package'); upon the formal date of departure from the European Union, certain provisions of the Great Repeal Act will take effect thereby repealing the European Communities Act 1972. At this point, Brexit - however it looks by that point - is complete.

There is an interim battle on-going in the meantime as to whether the Prime Minister's royal prerogative empowers her to trigger Article 50 without the consent of Parliament following a vote by MPs.

Even if the Prime Minister manages to trigger Article 50 without parliamentary consent, what happens if the government is actually defeated in the House of Commons when the Great Repeal Bill comes before the legislature? If the government fails to enact the Great Repeal Bill, then Brexit will have been knocked off course, and quite possibly dealt a fatal blow. At the very least, May would have to resign and there would be a fresh General Election.

This therefore begs the question of how will Her Majesty's Opposition position themselves with respect to the Great Repeal Bill? The Leader of the Labour Party should at least consider opposing the Bill. It is clear that the Great Repeal Bill presents the greatest threat to workers' rights and to environmental protections that this country has ever seen. There is also the crucial point that leaving the Single Market and ending freedom of movement were not on the ballot paper. It follows that the government does not in fact have a mandate for these things. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Tories are in fact fashioning Brexit in their own image and using it as a proxy for remodelling the entire nation, its politics, its economy and even our most fundamental rights.

It is therefore surely incumbent upon the progressive forces in the UK to come together in the national interest to oppose such a project. There can be a civic movement campaigning against Brexit, and we have seen signs of this already. However, ultimately, a Tory Brexit will only be defeated if the parties of the left, the centre-left and the centre work together in Parliament to defeat the legislative programme designed to bring this grand Tory design to pass.

Such coordinated action, based on principled politics, could herald the dawn of the "progressive alliance" as mooted by such Labour politicians as Clive Lewis, Jonathan Reynolds and Chuka Umunna, along with others in the Green Party, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats. The Labour Party and its Leader will have to consider such a "progressive alliance" as a serious strategy if a catastrophic and irreversible Tory refashioning of the nation is to be averted.