The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which is approaching its final parliamentary stages this week, ought to be relatively uncontroversial. Its principal purpose is simply to repeal the European Communities Act 1972, the statute under which legislation emanating from Brussels passes automatically into the body of British law. It also contains a number of other provisions to ensure that, upon departure, we will have a properly functioning statute book. It is a highly technical Bill and, as Bills go, is not particularly “political”.
If there was a time for controversy, it was the passage of an earlier piece of legislation, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, which authorised the service of the notice under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union of our intention to withdraw in March 2019. That Bill was indeed intensely and passionately debated, but, in the event, passed through the Commons by a majority of 494 to 122 on Third Reading.
One might therefore have expected that, by the time the current Bill was introduced, the heat would have dissipated and both Houses of Parliament would focus on the relatively straightforward task of producing a technically coherent piece of practical legislation. Not so. The Bill has been seized on by pro-Remain zealots – particularly in the Lords – as a vehicle for diluting, and potentially undoing, Brexit.
Last week, the Commons, in a marathon series of divisions, rejected all the anti-Brexit amendments that the Lords had made to the Bill by majorities at least in double figures; indeed, one amendment that sought to keep the UK tied into the European Economic Area was defeated by a majority of over 200. In some cases, the Commons proposed other amendments in lieu of the Lords amendments.
Today, Monday 18th June, the Bill returns to the Lords, who will have to consider whether to to accept the Bill in its last amended form. I sincerely hope that they do, but am concerned that the Upper House may be tempted to continue along what is now looking like a perversely obstructionist course.
In particular, Lord Hailsham may be inclined to persevere with his ‘meaningful vote’ amendment, which seeks to trample over the doctrine of the separation of powers and have the entire Brexit process directed by the 650 members of the Commons and the 800-odd Lords if a draft withdrawal agreement is not approved by the end of November. It is hard to conceive of a recipe for greater chaos, or anything likelier to frustrate a successful conclusion to the withdrawal negotiations. I am sure that that is not what the noble Lord is trying to achieve.
The Lords really should not be pushing their amendments further; is time for them to call it a day. I have no doubt that many of them sincerely believe that Brexit is a thoroughly undesirable thing and should be stopped. Indeed, several of them make no secret of it. The cross-bencher Lord Bilimoria, for example, recently wrote a lengthy article in The Guardian in which he observed that Brexit was “like watching a train crash in slow motion. Our amendments in the House of Lords are made in the hope that we give MPs the ability to stop this crash”.
To read David Jones’s piece for BrexitCentral in full, click here.