Dominic Grieve, MP, and Viscount Hailsham are clever barristers both, and agreeable company. I was at Oxford with one, sit in the Lords with the other, and count them as friends. But what they are up to infuriates me. Their amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill — for it is a joint effort — is a masterpiece of ingenuity and subterfuge, and it has nearly succeeded in wrecking Brexit altogether, which was undoubtedly its purpose all along. Tonight in the Lords comes the latest and probably not the last battle.
Before the 2017 election Mr Grieve said he did not want to “fetter the government’s hands in negotiations, or indeed the government’s right to walk away from the negotiations”. Like many at that time he wanted to get the best possible deal in the softest possible Brexit. What changed?
After the election, a new opportunity arose. Somewhere, maybe in Brussels, maybe in London, a group of determined Remainers must have met and decided upon a plan, not to soften or improve Brexit but to kill it, by the device of ensuring that such a bad deal was on the table that the British people might change their minds. Who met where and when we may never know, but let’s picture a scene: a pack of Blairite spin doctors, a shoal of well-watered Eurocrats, a posse of Tory rebels, a pomposity of QCs, an incantation of retired mandarins, and, off stage, an affluence of money men.
Their best weapon would be to amend a vital bill that ostensibly had nothing to do with the negotiations, but was designed to make the statute book fit for purpose after withdrawal. But how? Lots of ideas came forward, such as removing the date of exit from the bill, but it was the demand for a so-called meaningful vote in parliament on the negotiations that came to be the key weapon, because it was the subtlest. And now, the Commons having disposed of all the rest, it is the only one left.
That wily old veteran of Euroscepticism Sir Bill Cash MP, chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, saw quite clearly some months ago what was afoot. I recall him saying then that the Hailsham amendment in the Lords was a dangerous improvement on the Grieve amendment in the Commons and was by far the cleverest threat to any Brexit at all, let alone a clean one.
By giving parliament control of the negotiations should no deal be reached by a certain date, it looked innocuous and democratic but effectively removed all threat of Britain leaving without a deal: for there would be no parliamentary majority for any particular tactic, let alone playing chicken with Brussels. That would give Michel Barnier and the European Commission the certainty that they could stonewall till parliament stepped in and then concede nothing and demand everything without fear of Britain walking away.
To read Matt Ridley’s piece for The Times in full, click here.