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The government is destined for trouble with its repeal bill

You’d think a government wouldn’t launch its flagship bill that takes Britain out of European Union legislation without first being clear what taking Britain out of the EU would actually look like. Apparently not: the once Great Repeal Bill – now just plain old European Union (Withdrawal) Bill for less triumphant times – was published today, and no-one is clear on Brexit at all. 

It’s not just questions such as those that Emily Thornberry raised at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday about border controls in the event of no deal with the European Union, or indeed questions about how members of the governing party will actually vote, not just on the Commons stages of the primary legislation, but on the manifold items of secondary legislation attached to this Bill. 

The impact assessment published alongside the bill says it will include between 800 and 1,000 statutory instruments. Often the committees scrutinising these detailed pieces of legislation (at least, they’re supposed to be detailed but are often used by governments to sneak much bigger changes past MPs with as little scrutiny as possible) are quick, dull affairs in which MPs from the party with a majority don’t say a word and vote as they’re told. But for the instruments attached to this Bill, matters may be rather different. 

Given the government doesn’t have a majority in the House of Commons, and given it certainly doesn’t have a majority in the Conservative party for all of the changes it wants to make to Britain’s relationship with Europe or Britain’s domestic law following exit, the whips are going to have to work loyal backbenchers very hard indeed on these many, many committees. It’s not even clear whether they’ll end up filling the committees. After some months, Tory MPs might start to complain that they’re barely able to do anything else and that their constituents are annoyed at how quiet they’ve become as a result of all this secondary legislation. At one point those involved in party discipline were considering shrinking the size of the committees – and that was when the Tories had a majority. 

Neither is Labour’s position clear. Jeremy Corbyn has been holding talks with the chief Brexit negotiator for the EU, Michel Barnier, today and laid out a number of the Labour party’s clear stances on leaving the EU, such as a unilateral offer of citizens’ rights for EU nationals living in the UK after Brexit. But there are still splits in the party over the single market. Today Keir Starmer put the government ‘on notice’, threatening to vote against the Bill if there were not significant concessions on matters such as workers’ rights, human rights, and the ability of Parliament to scrutinise changes properly. That is a clear threat, but what would be a clear victory for the party on these matters? Oppositions often talk tough when a bill is published, only to soften their position as it progresses through its Commons stages. Labour doesn’t just have a split in its MPs but in its vote: it is trying to represent seats that voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union as well as those with a fervent pro-Remain electorate. 

One thing is clear, though. This will be the major political topic in this session, and MPs will not be able to ignore it, or the detail of the Bill which in other contexts they might rely on their whips to explain to them. Both Labour and Tories have alternative whipping systems for those who disagree with their party leaderships on Brexit, but individual MPs are aware that voting the ‘wrong way’ for their seats is much higher stakes than it is normally on even reasonably high-profile pieces of legislation. The only thing they should worry about more than getting something in this devilishly complex bill wrong is giving the impression that no-one in Westminster has a clue what’s going on when it comes to Brexit. And on that, they should probably start worrying right away, if they aren’t already.

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