THE BLOG

Government Brexit Deadline Is Not So Much A Red Herring As A Dead Cat

23/11/2017 16:04 GMT

I have a prediction about the government amendment to EU Withdrawal Bill, fixing the time the UK leaves the EU as “before, after or at 11pm on 29th March 2019”. It will be withdrawn by government on the evening it is debated, having served its purpose of putting up a massive target for Remain-leaning MPs and newspapers to get hugely upset about, and for Leave-leaning MPs to say “look at that, don’t look at this other stuff”.

It’s the biggest dead cat strategy employed by the Brexit brigade since the days of the Referendum.

As we know, the EU Withdrawal bill gives the government rights to massively trample over Parliament in the name of Parliamentary Sovereignty. Ministers, with a little help from a Gerrymandered Select Committee makeup, can do almost whatever they like.

Naturally for such a hugely important bill, many amendments have been put forward, to protect EU citizens (including us), to protect the environment, animal welfare, and most importantly, to protect our country from predatory use of the bill itself. But by far the biggest attention-grabber has been the amendment to Clause 14 (The Time We Will Leave Amendment).

The Withdrawal Bill has generated 191 pages of amendments containing 378 changes and 75 new clauses. Parliament has allocated eight 8-hour sessions of debate time for these amendments – that’s a little under 9 minutes of debate per change, not counting the time to actually vote on them. In practice this is managed by a process whereby the Speaker’s office and representatives from both sides group amendments into related packages, to stop us debating changes until way past March 2019.

Despite this cripplingly tight deadline to sort out the amendments, hours of debate time on the first day were wasted on Frank Field’s daft amendment for the actual time we leave the EU to be set using GMT rather than EU time. This amendment was eventually withdrawn after doing its job of occupying enough Parliamentary energy.

Three days of the eight allocated have now passed with zero amendments being passed. Every amendment has been voted down. And some of them are very important.

One amendment recently defeated was to include EU rules about animal sentience into UK law – this defeat means that the official government line post-Brexit is essentially that animals can feel no pain, and don’t care how badly you treat them.

Two more crucial amendments were overturned in more recent debates – Challenges to Validity of Retained EU Law (which sounds dull but defeat means the UK can mess with employment rights after Brexit and those affected can’t go to the ECJ) – and most scarily the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which are a package of human rights which UK citizens obviously currently benefit from.

These three amendments collectively mean we probably won’t be able to export meat to the EU as we won’t abide by their animal welfare standards, that any EU national still crazy enough to wish to work here after Brexit wouldn’t have the same employment rights, and that UK citizens could lose fundamental human rights (this last amendment wasn’t defeated but withdrawn after government promised a “full report”, which supposedly is good enough).

Another Labour amendment suggested we may want to stay in zero-tariff trading arrangements with the EU – meaning we could essentially stay in the Single Market / Customs Union. This was heavily defeated, with the astounding spectacle of Labour shadow cabinet members walking through the Lobby alongside David Davis, and Labour’s Barry Gardiner suggesting it was “illiterate” and illogical, without suggesting a more literate or logical alternative that could allow the UK to retain the huge benefits of the Single Market. Some of us remember when leaving the Single Market / Customs Union was described as a “Disastrous Hard Brexit” by Labour benches, and also remember how Theresa May went to the country to give her a mandate for a her version of Brexit – and lost her majority because of it. Now it’s a policy that Labour defends, making Theresa’s dalliance with the Ballot Box even more of a waste of time.

Hundreds of amendments are being defeated, with Remain-leaning Tories being advised to choose their battles in favour of defeating the Exit Date amendment, which is meaningless for two reasons. Firstly, a legal time limit already exists on when we leave the EU – exactly 2 years after we triggered Article 50 (i.e. on 29th March 2019) and short of withdrawing Article 50 there’s nothing we can do about it. That date cannot be changed by us unilaterally, only by agreement with the rest of the EU it. We can legally withdraw Article 50 unilaterally, as one of the authors who drafted it points out, but not fiddle with the date.

Secondly, the Henry VIII powers given to ministers in the Bill “where necessary to aid the process of withdrawal” allows them to alter the bill itself so any clause can essentially be changed or ditched. Ministers could push the date in either direction at will. These powers are in clauses yet to be debated, and the Lords is likely to kick up a huge fuss about them, but as it stands we must trust David Davis and Boris Johnson not to abuse their powers. As if they would…

Government has introduced a Big Scary though meaningless amendment as a distraction from the real changes that should be made. Expect them to drop it on the day it’s debated, with great fanfare about “defeat on a crucial aspect of Brexit” by both sides, when the damage has already been done.