Dominic Grieve: “Brexit’s frustrations are self-inflicted – they are not coming from me"
Dominic Grieve has emerged as one of the most vocal Brexit rebels on the Tory side, after putting his name to more than a dozen repeal bill amendments. Ahead of the crucial committee stage, he talks to Emilio Casalicchio about his red lines – and why he will fight all the way to stop the UK’s constitutional framework being ‘ripped up’ by Brexit
Life is always better when you have an expert friend who can help you out. A mate who’s a plumber can replace that tap with the busted handle. A buddy who trained as a mechanic will probably help you re-attach your exhaust. And a pal who can ‘fillet’ a parliamentary bill might be able to table you some legislative amendments. That’s why MPs have been knocking on the office door of Dominic Grieve.
The former attorney general spent many a late night in opposition penning clauses to get the Labour government in a spin. And now he’s doing the same to his own side.
Grieve – one of parliament’s most respected legal minds – is on a mission to ensure the British constitution is respected through the Brexit process. He wants to make sure quitting the EU happens in an “orderly way” and is keen to avoid a Pandora’s Box of “total chaos”.
Emerging as one of the most vocal Brexit rebels on the Tory side, Grieve has tabled a string of amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill; the one that seeks to enshrine EU law into the UK statute book. As such, other worried parliamentarians are coming to him for help in doing the same.
“I’m not a great parliamentary draughtsman,” Grieve laughs in his petite but homely office in Portcullis House. “But yes, colleagues are raising concerns with me about other areas in which this bill can be tidied up or improved, and if I think there are then I’m trying to do something about it.”
He adds: “Process matters because if you follow the right process you get the right level of debate on the issues and you are more likely than not to come up with the correct answers to each individual problem that we face.”
Top of Grieve’s list is making sure ministers are unable to run riot with secondary ‘Henry VIII’ legislation. The ‘Statutory Instrument’ (SI) clauses the government hopes to make big use of in the so-called Repeal Bill worry MPs because they can be amended or binned at a later date by ministers without going through the usual parliamentary hurdles. Grieve has tabled amendments making sure the powers are limited and pushing for a committee system to be set up between the Commons and the Lords that can sieve the various issues and decide what can be processed through SI and what needs full parliamentary scrutiny.
“Let’s face it, a large number of these statutory instruments are going to be purely technical. I have absolutely no doubt about that at all. But some of them are going to be very important and some of them may be important outside the categories that the government has itself defined in the bill. That’s what the legislation has got to provide for,” he explains.
Another major aim for Grieve is making sure the safeguards that currently exist to challenge European laws are protected in the UK statute book at least until those laws are junked. The government is “largely getting rid” of those safety nets because it has “failed to recognise” that EU law is different from that made in Westminster, he says.
The final big ticket item he lists as a priority is ensuring the final Brexit deal is put before parliament as a proper bill, not just the ‘take it or quit with no deal’ offer the government has so far promised.
“At the end of this process we are going to be giving the government one of the biggest blank cheques in history,” he warns. “Because the bill envisages our total removal from the EU, but in reality the government wants to have some sort of deal with the EU before we leave. My view is that we can’t possibly allow the powers we have given to the government to be brought into force and used until we know what that final deal is and until parliament has had an opportunity to approve that final deal, almost certainly by having to pass another statute. It’s very much in the government’s interest that there should be certainty at the end of the process.”
So far, Grieve has put his name to more than 15 Repeal Bill amendments, but he could yet add more. He explains that extra clauses protecting equality, employment and consumer protection rights are likely to come from his pen, and he’s even in talks with colleagues about amendments concerning how Brexit will affect devolution settlements.
He’s hopeful the government will be knocking on his door shortly with a list of “sensible answers” to his concerns that will allow him to back down. But it’s the Henry VIII stuff he suggests would be a ‘red line’ for him, calling it a “fundamental” issue – although he refuses to say yet whether he would actually vote against the bill at its crucial third reading.
“Clearly if the bill was so bad at third reading then I would have to consider whether I can support it,” he says. “But it’s hypothetical. I have every reason to hope the government will, during the committee stage, listen to what the House is saying and make the necessary improvements to it.”
Potentially helping to vote down the legislation – thereby destabilising the government on its most important project this year – is not something Grieve considers lightly. He realises his options could be a bad Repeal Bill or an even messier Brexit with no plan at all.
“Obviously [refusing to support it] is not something I want to have to do because this bill is necessary,” he says. “If we don’t have such a bill it doesn’t mean we are not leaving the EU, it means we are leaving the EU in complete and total chaos.”
And he adds: “My duty as a parliamentarian, having accepted the decision of the electorate in last year’s referendum – even though I happen to think it was a mistaken decision – is to try to make sure this process is as smooth as possible and the risks are minimised. That’s what I’m trying to achieve.
“Clearly I have to, at any given moment, reconcile and make an evaluation about whether opposition or objecting to something is going to cause more disruption than the benefits that are going to flow from it. I’m just hoping that as committee stage gets underway we can improve the legislation.”
Alongside his string of amendments, Grieve backs the drive by 120 other MPs to see the impact assessments the government commissioned to work out exactly how hard specific sectors will be hit by Brexit.
“I find it difficult to see why they shouldn’t be made available to the public,” he says. It’s on this point that Grieve’s motivations, as he continues to throw up hurdles for his own side, sound most like those of a Remain campaigner. “I think it’s important that the public should understand how the government’s own advisers see the consequences that Brexit will have,” he explains.
But despite his efforts – which are undoubtedly a headache for the government – and his affiliation with the Brexit awkward squad, featuring the likes of Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, Grieve insists he is not out to frustrate the process for its own sake. He shoots back at any critics: “It is very strange situation that on the one hand people vote in a referendum and say they want ‘to take back control’... and then are prepared to see the entire constitutional framework ripped up in order to achieve Brexit with actually no immediate prospect in the short to medium term that that constitutional framework will be put back together again.”
He posits that he would be raising the same issues and staying up late to table difficult amendments even if he were a supporter of Brexit. “It’s not a question of frustrating Brexit,” he adds. “Brexit’s frustrations are self-inflicted – they are not coming from me.”