The stark choice for the next PM: delay Brexit or leave in chaos
MPs who chatter incessantly about a no deal scenario would be wise to actually consider the work there is in front of them to achieve it, writes Tony Grew
The contest for the Conservative leadership has certainly been memorable so far, and that is before the members have their say. The candidates were winnowed down in quite a dramatic fashion, and now the parliamentary stage is over. We will find out the winner in the week of 22nd July. That’s quite a while away. The front runner, Boris Johnson, has said that the UK will leave the EU by 31st October, deal or no deal.
While the focus has been on leadership, personalities have trumped policies. The desire to be seen as the hardest Brexit candidate has driven Mr Johnson to this uncompromising position. He will probably have to break that promise within weeks. Before the UK can leave with no deal, there is a legislative mountain to climb.
While the EU Withdrawal Act in 2018 copied EU law into UK law post Brexit, the government will need to pass the following bills into law. The Agriculture Bill, creating a new domestic agriculture regulation framework, completed its committee stage in October 2018. Since then there has been silence on when it will return to the Commons. The immigration bill seems pretty important to no deal, given that it would “end rights to free movement of persons under retained EU law and to repeal other retained EU law relating to immigration”. It is yet to return to the Commons for its report stage, having completed committee stage in March. The fisheries bill has been waiting for its report stage since December.
Then there’s the trade bill. It’s unclear how many existing EU trade deals the new administration will be able to roll over when the UK leaves on October 31st, but the legislative framework to establish the trade remedies authority is at least close to becoming law. The Commons has yet to decide a date for ping pong on Lords amendments, having completed third reading in the other place in March. It is at least close to achieving Royal Assent. The financial services bill was due to have its report stage and third reading on 4th March, “but this has now been postponed to a date to be announced” according to the parliament website.
MPs who chatter incessantly about a no deal scenario would be wise to actually consider the work there is in front of them to achieve it, and the lack of time to get all these bills through both Houses. The leader of the House has helpfully announced the summer recess dates. The Commons is due to break for the summer on Thursday 25th July and return on Tuesday 3rd September. We do not know what was said at the leadership hustings, but one can only hope that out of more than 300 legislators at least one asked the candidate promising to leave the EU deal or no deal on 31st October how precisely he was planning to get these five major pieces of legislation through both Houses before exit.
Perhaps Mr Johnson will achieve all of this in the two weeks sitting in September. That will likely be eight sitting days. That’s certainly an ambitious target. After the party conferences there should be three further weeks of sitting days before the UK leaves. The Lords have been invisible in the leadership contest: they won’t be when it comes to passing all this legislation. Peers are unlikely to be moved by an appeal from a hard Brexit prime minister to rush these bills through in order to allow the UK to crash out. Anyone with the most basic grasp of how the process of passing laws works in practice will agree it is impossible to push these bills through both Houses in the time left. The choice for the new PM will be stark: delay Brexit or leave in legal chaos, with everyone from farmers to financial services left hanging.
Mr Johnson’s victory may be inevitable. His force of personality looks certain to propel him into No.10. He should enjoy the campaign because the actual governing is going to be gruelling and disappointing for many of his more idealistic supporters. Belief is a great thing, but it doesn’t get legislation passed.
There are other huge problems with no deal. The focus has rightly been on the Irish border, but the UK has a sea border with the EU as well. How will customs arrangements work? The EU has said it will unilaterally allow some UK–EU flights to continue for 12 months after a no deal exit, subject to the UK agreeing to do the same. That buys the UK breathing space, but not much.
No deal, far from being a clean break with the EU, is more likely to lead to ad-hoc arrangements, dependent on the EU’s goodwill, rolling over from year to year as negotiations grind on. Is that really taking back control?
A concerned peer gets in touch. “Too many people are backing Boris,” he says. “They’re not all going to get jobs.” He has a point. Normally in a leadership election, there are deals to be done and people to be promoted from the rival camps in the pursuit of “party unity”. This time around the frontrunner is so out in front that losing candidates aren’t really in a position to bargain. Rumours are already rife about who Mr Johnson will appoint to his cabinet, more than a month before the result is announced. Some people will be disappointed.
The Commons torpor continues. The House has very little business to consider, so it exists on a diet of general debates, backbench business debates and legislation so uncontroversial that one bill completed its second reading last week in under 30 minutes. The Speaker is doing his utmost to fill in the gaps. He granted a record-breaking four urgent questions last Monday. While some MPs have cause to complain he is overdoing it, the fact is that the House would have risen at around 4:45pm if he had not granted those UQs. And there are still four weeks to go until recess.
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