I’m still celebrating, but the work is beginning at once. Just as
after the office party the ’phone will ring, so now the new, giddy MPs must get
to work at speed, to get done all those things that should have been done in
the last three and a half years, and more.
First of all: get Brexit done finally. It is almost a year late.
A Withdrawal Agreement Bill will be introduced on Friday, and a programme motion to push it through the Commons before Christmas – or alternatively a Section 13 motion. One problem facing the renewed Government is that the Surrender Act is still in force and obliges the Government to go for the Malthouse Compromise and nothing else: that must be cleared away and all the tripwires the awkward squad imposed during the Zombie Parliament, and so a Bill is needed.
We had a commentary on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill on the day it was published. If the same Bill is introduced, the same issues are there; it is unnecessarily complicated because it was done in a hurry and appears to duplicate powers which are already in the existing European Union Withdrawal Act. It also has provisions with a burdensome procedure for the Government to have to keep referring back to the Commons on the course of the negotiations for a new trade deal. Maybe that was a way to win some wavering support in the hung House of Commons. The voice of the Commons should be heard in the negotiations as they will be required to pass an Act to implement the resulting treaty, and they will want to voice priorities in terms of the extent to which Britain will be bound by agreements, and this will include important areas such as intellectual property, state aid, level-playing-field tendering and co-operation in VAT and data-sharing. However too much structure can make the negotiation slow and encumbered, and since it has to be concluded by December 2020, that is worrying.
In one element though the government can properly be hobbled in its negotiation, and that is where there is the possibility of extending the Transition Period (the ‘vassalage period’ as it has been called). The Withdrawal Agreement provides for an agreed extension, but it would be unwelcome and against the Manifesto pledge. It is hinted that the Bill to be brought on Friday will bar the government from actually extending. That is wise: it was the possibility of extension of the Article 50 period which made that extension inevitable, and the possibility of extending the vassalage will be very tempting to Brussels as they prevaricate in their negotiations over the course of 2020.
Never forget in all of this, that although there is a large Conservative majority and the will to get this through, and though all the blue rebels have been ousted and swept into obscurity, the Labour benches still contain the likes of Hilary Benn, prime mover of the Surrender Act, and Keir Starmer, co-author of Section 13 and one of those who gave aid and comfort to the enemy in Brussels. They may be overpowered, but they will not be silent.
This morning Michel Barnier made a useful observation: he said
that a complete negotiation of an international trade treaty would take far longer
than twelve months, but that it should be possible to do enough in that time to
continue the trading relationship. That is a constructive way ahead.
With a common-sense approach and goodwill it should be possible to do the whole treaty in twelve months, but common sense and goodwill and not among the EU’s known qualities, not alacrity come to that. Theresa May’s team were content to sit back and wait for Brussels to propose things, with the result we saw. This time it will need British will to push the new trade deal at every stage, and an open line to Eire – the one European state which does display common sense on occasion. Then if the treaty text can artfully keep to areas within the European Union’s ‘exclusive competence’ then the treaty need only pass through the European Union’s own procedures and not be tripped up by a troublesome member state; the EU-Canada CETA strayed beyond and was felled by the Walloon regional parliament. If for a full treaty it is impossible to keep to the areas of exclusive competence, Monsieur Barnier’s “enough” treaty could, with detail to follow.
If it is likely then that the trade treaty will be a multi-stage process then the Government must be free to negotiate it in stages and sign up in stages, and the terms of any Bill before the Commons must not inadvertently hamper that.
I may be getting ahead of things though: the first thing is to get Parliament to grant whatever authority the Government needs to sign the deal, and (whether at the same time or following on its heels) to repeal the Surrender Act and the unfortunate Section 13.
Then by December we may see a signature on a new treaty. Not in Rome,
as it is too redolent of the original treaty which got us into this mess in the
first place, and of the Europeans’ imperial ambitions: may I suggest Wittenberg?