The theory that a key Brexit bill will keep the UK stealthily in the EU is just a distraction

Come what may.
Come what may.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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There are two huge things happening that could make the road to Brexit even more chaotic than it already is.

Britain’s parliament is voting around midnight, tonight (Sept. 11) on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, previously referred to as the Great Repeal Bill. It’s meant to convert laws from the bloc into UK legislation, meaning Britain won’t be caught short when Brexit happens on Mar. 29, 2019.

The opposition party Labour, as well as politicians from other parties, are warning that the Brexit bill is a “power grab” for prime minister Theresa May and her government. If the bill does goes through then she really does have carte blanche on what rules she’d chop or change. But the thing is, these politicians can legitimately block the bill from going ahead.

“The first thing to say that it will only take 6 or 7 MPs to vote down the government on any issue. Secondly, Labour is the opposition—its role is to oppose the bill and it is an opportunity to bring them down [on this occasion],” said Mike Mannin, politics lecturer at University of Portsmouth to Quartz.

“Thirdly, these are really big and important constitutional issues. The government is responsible for the bill. [The details] won’t be discussed in great detail and this gives it dictatorial powers to change what it wants. Parliament will just be able to vote on having an amendment or accept the detail of this enormous bill.”

A constitutional expert also agrees. “The Great Repeal Bill essentially takes parliament’s ability to approve or disapprove laws away. So, in that sense it gives massive discretion to ministers,” said Professor Peter Catterall, constitutional expert and professor of history and policy at the University of Westminster to Quartz.

“The only thing that will happen then to control the power of ministers will be the position of the courts, so presumably what they’ll be doing is to try and tie the courts as narrowly as possible to interpreting the will of parliament. They will likely build in the discretion for ministers to apply or disapply rules once Brexit has happened.”

Meanwhile, Brexit minister David Davis warned that “a vote against this bill is a vote for a chaotic exit from the European Union.”

But the government doesn’t need to just worry about the opposition, it’s facing a rebellion from within the Conservative party. Last week, a letter signed by dozens of Brexit-supporting Tory MPs said they are worried prime minister May and her cabinet are watering down her original stance for a “hard Brexit,” which involves leaving the single market and therefore allows Britain the ability to not adhere to EU migration policies. They said they’re worried she’s going to keep Britain in the EU “by stealth.”

“Shall we say, the hardline Tory Brexiteer is such a conspiracy theorist that they see conspiracy everywhere, and there is no evidence, as far as I am aware, that would support that interpretation—certainly not at the moment,” said Catterall.

“The only grounds where they might have a point is that the Repeal bill is effectively mapping European law into UK law, simply because it’s the most easy way of doing the nigh on impossible. It’s something that gives room for a kind of U-turn at some point. So, you could interpret the Tory letter as a shot across the bows of the government. I think its parliamentary saber-rattling at this time. Leaks of this kind are, of course, deliberate, and are intended to move the debate in a particular direction.”

This is all seems to be a bit of a distraction from the bigger picture—the dilution of basic workers’ rights that were standardized within the EU. Mannin says working hours, issues associated with minimum wages, and laws around the right to strike could be undermined, while these changes will no longer be checked by the European courts. Catterall also points out that it is more likely that this will happen, when asked if axing workers rights is on the agenda.

“Let’s put it this way, would you trust anything this government says, given the way in which it interpreted an advisory referendum to mean everything they wanted it to mean, and not anything they didn’t want it to mean,” said Catterall.

“In other words, I wouldn’t trust them not to do Brexit in a way that does not suit its purposes because that’s exactly what they’ve done down the line. The probability is that you’re going to have a game plan that suits their purposes. So I think Labour’s concerns on this are bang on the money.”