The Government’s flagship Brexit bill is set to be delayed until the autumn amid fears that Tory ‘Remainer rebels’ will join with Labour to demand key concessions.
HuffPost UK has been told that the Repeal Bill, which aims to transpose thousands of EU laws and directives into British law, may not be brought before the Commons for a vote until October at the earliest.
The stalling of the legislation follows fears among Government whips that it could be subjected to a string of amendments that seek to rule out a ‘hard Brexit’ for the UK when it formally leaves the EU in 2019.
The tactic emerged as Cabinet minister Damian Green hinted on Monday that a controversial ‘transition period’ for Brexit could see the European Court of Justice continue to have a role over UK affairs.
When asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether the ECJ would still have jurisdiction in any transition, Green, the First Secertary of State and Theresa May’s de facto deputy PM, replied: “That will last for a limited amount of time, for practical reasons, to make sure that business can have the certainty to carry on as we want it to.
“If there needs to be some kind of implementation period, or transition period, in certain areas after March 2019, which I think everyone agrees is quite likely, then the rules that operate during that transition period will by definition not be the rules that we have afterwards.”
The Repeal Bill, which is set to be published with its formal first reading on Thursday, will be the first of eight bills over the next two years which are dedicated to paving the way for Brexit.
But ministers worry that it will provoke a Parliamentary war of attrition as ‘soft Brexit’ MPs try to amend it and ‘hard Brexit’ MPs try to toughen it up.
Second readings of bills usually feature debates and votes on the principles of the legislation, and are almost never amended, but whips fear a possible Parliamentary ambush to insert specific ‘transition’ timetables and other moves.
Some rebels want to insert a four-year transition timetable, some want to specify the UK remains in the customs union and subject to the ECJ during transition. Without a working majority, just seven Tory MPs need to team up with Labour and other parties to defeat the Government.
Other amendments, sure to be backed by the House of Lords, will seek to curtail the ‘Henry VIII powers’ expected in the bill, which would give the Government the right to bypass scrutiny by using statutory instruments to give effect to the new laws. Up to 1,000 pieces of such ‘secondary legislation’ may be deployed and ministers could face Lords-backed ‘sunset’ clauses on their own role.
Some Brexiteers want the eight Brexit bills to start their long passage through Parliament as quickly as possible and had hoped the Repeal Bill would get its second reading this week.
Yet with May’s own position still subject to a possible leadership challenge, No10 is hoping to ‘get over the line’ of July 20, when the Commons rises for a long summer break.
The Commons returns for two weeks in September, but sources suggest it is unlikely No.10 will want to risk any fresh controversy by tabling the second reading of the Repeal Bill then. Downing St and the Brexit Department also want to focus initially on their ongoing negotiation with the EU’s Michel Barnier.
Chuka Umunna, who along with Tory MP Anna Soubry will co-chair a new All-Party Parliamentary Group on EU Relations opposing a ‘hard Brexit’, told HuffPost UK: “The clock is ticking on Brexit.
“Given the importance of this Bill and how long it could take to make its passage through both Houses of Parliament, it’s extraordinary the Government is delaying in getting on with the Second Reading.
“The arithmetic in the Commons has changed as a result of the General Election and the delay on this Bill is the first clear sign of this - the House of Commons is no longer a passive bystander in the Brexit process, it is a player and we should each use this influence to ensure our constituents voices are heard.”
James McGrory, of lobby group Open Britain, told HuffPost UK: “The Repeal Bill will shape the future of our country for decades to come. By transferring the whole body of EU law into British law, it will touch on every area of policy, and contains real risks that workers’ rights and environmental protections could be watered down.
“That is why it is so important MPs are given as much time as possible to debate, scrutinise, and if necessary amend this bill. Refusing to hold a vote for months to come speaks of unwelcome secrecy on the part of the Government.
“They should be straight with the public, respect the rights of MPs, and proceed with debate on the Repeal Bill sooner rather than later.”
The ‘nuclear option’ for those seeking to amend the Repeal Bill would be to delay it so much that the UK is left in legal limbo after 2019. The legislation seeks to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act that made EU law effective in the UK.
Tory Brexiteer MP Jacob Rees-Mogg told BBC Radio 4′s Westminster Hour on Sunday: “If the Great Repeal Bill isn’t passed and if these coalitions come together to frustrate it, what happens is a legal mess in March 2019.”
The idea of a Repeal Bill was first floated by former Tory MP Douglas Carswell and Tory MEP Dan Hannan, but they expected it to be used as a means to junk many of the EU’s directives.
Instead, the legislation is seen as a technical means of ensuring no rights are lost on the day of Brexit and can be sorted out later. Some Brexiteers, and academics, have already dubbed it ‘the cut and paste bill’.