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Weather alert: Hurricane Brexit set to batter Britain

MICHAEL WHITE on the coming post-EU withdrawal bill vote storm and what happens now we get into the detail

Never boring, is it?

Monday night’s second reading vote on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill may only have been classified as a Category 2 storm which passed through the House of Commons with limited damage to the fragile infrastructure of party politics. But that was just a lull. Forecasters predict that next month’s committee stage will quickly get into hot water, picking up moisture that generates renewed ferocity. Hurricane Brexit’s destructive power remains awesome. And the bill is just one of eight such measures ahead.

From Theresa May’s standpoint a 326-290 majority of 36 – buttressed by the DUP bloc, seven Labour Brexiteers and abstentions on both sides – was good enough to give her a good night’s sleep. Did it justify Mrs May’s low-grade hyperbole about ‘an historic decision to back the will of the British people’ or the Daily Mail’s ‘One Step Closer to Freedom’ headline? Not really.

The Prime Minister is more aware than most that the will of the British people is unusually confused about what it wants from Brexit. To the despair of Brussels, British ministerial clarity remains scarcely better. As Tony Blair scornfully puts it, ‘so far the ‘will of the people’ expressed in the referendum has trumped the impulse for leadership’.

Put like that, Labour’s decision to vote against the second reading saw Corbynite discipline prevail, more or less. Whether it proves to be a tactical masterstroke or an albatross around Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral neck remains to be seen. I have my doubts – remember Harriet Harman’s much-derided decision merely to abstain on child benefit cuts in 2015. But Hurricane Brexit’s future path is as hard to predict as Harvey, Irma’s or Hurricane Jose.

Meanwhile the wider trail of devastation in the political hurricane season’s wake continues to mount. Angry words swirling around like lethal sheets of corrugated iron. Great chunks torn off carefully constructed position papers and damaging leaks – May’s draft immigration paper ending up in the Guardian was a particularly severe one. It was condemned by business, unions, the EU27 and the more sophisticated newspapers as potentially self-harming to the economy, public services and Britain’s reputation. Both Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd, May’s successor at the Home Office, are resisting it.

In the ongoing storm even Blair, who has withstood Category 5 hurricanes for decades, was briefly capsized over immigration. A sturdy dissection of the facts from familiar fictions – in the form of a paper published by his think tank, the Institute for Global Change (IGC) – put to sea despite storm warnings. But it quickly sank from view. Better to be hated, surely, than be widely ignored. Barely a word in the news pages of the Times, FT or Guardian. When did that last happen to Labour’s triple election winner?

Timing as well as substance contributed to the former prime minister’s mishap. First the substance. In not admitting that his government got it wrong in failing to impose transitional restrictions on migration from the EU’s eight new members, notably Poland, in 2004 (the economy was booming at the time, he replies), Blair was bound to invite taunts from his Conservative critics. ‘Your ideas for imposing curbs now are all a bit late, aren’t they?’ newspapers crowed at the sharp end of Fleet Street.

As for liberal commentators, some accused him of a tactical appeasement of anti-immigrant populism, a surge not confined to Brexit Britain. The Guardian’s Matthew D’Ancona also charged Blair with ‘economic illiteracy’ in claiming on the BBC’s Marr sofa that mass migration undercuts wages for British workers. It is an article of liberal faith that this is not so – a belief not universally shared in much of Eastern England.

In 2017 it has only recently become acceptable for progressives to admit that extra numbers, as well as budget cuts, pile pressure on struggling schools and hospitals. The IGC’s wholesome marshalling of statistics is impressive – you’ll find it on their website – but makes no allowance for the emotive driving power of imported terrorism or chaotic TV pictures from the Calais Jungle. The IGC paper is too high-minded for its own good.

In the same spirit Blair’s metropolitan liberal critics tell him that, now that he no longer has to face the voters, he should have stood up to the populists as Corbyn conspicuously did not after May’s immigration draft was leaked. All too aware of anti-immigrant instincts in Labour’s old industrial heartlands, the Islington leadership did not raise it at PMQs. As those seven rebels showed on Monday night, the issue unsettles otherwise loyal heartland MPs too. Jeremy is focussed on consolidating his power in the party. There is talk of five more years, by which time he will be as old as Vince Cable.

But Has-Been Blair is damned either way. Surely it would be much more arrogant to admit – as Harvey Redgrave’s paper for the IGC does – that fears over immigration were a contributory factor to the Brexit majority, but not seek to address those fears? The paper does so by proposing that Britain negotiate an enhanced ’emergency brake’ mechanism – the approach David Cameron failed to deliver – and impose registration requirements that would allow us all to avoid both a Hard Brexit (or any Brexit?) and the rejected status quo.

Pure Blairite triangulation, a technique that has often worked before. But now? Blair’s justification came in an accompanying article.

‘The ballast for the Brexit vote was from communities and people feeling, justifiably, marginalised and unheard ten years ago, Britain’s economy was strong, satisfaction levels with the NHS were at record highs, educational attainment was improving, crime was falling and inequality was narrowing.

‘But the financial crisis and years of austerity have taken their toll. The poorest have suffered; middle incomes have stagnated; and the cultural gap between metropolitan and rural, North and South, older and younger, has yawned over our political discourse, dividing the nation.

Brexit was the instrument to force the political class to abandon its lassitude and wake up to the depth of the anger. However, Brexit is not the answer to it.’

Blair was spotted kissing the EU Commission president, Jean-Claud Juncker, in Brussels last week, to the rage of the tabloids. What’s the traitor up to now, they asked though they might more usefully have asked why Boris (Where is he?) Johnson had been dispatched to Nigeria, shortly to the Caribbean hurricane zone too. You don’t suppose the Foreign Office is keeping Boris safely out of the country? I certainly can’t believe he wrote Tuesday’s defence article which appeared under his name in the Times. There wasn’t a single ‘Crikey’ in it.

Blair, it can be assumed, will brief UK ministers on what he picks up about the shifting mood in EU capitals, less glacially inflexible than assumed. President Macron is not alone in wanting to modify the single market’s fourth freedom, freedom of movement for workers, skilled and unskilled, executives and sun-seeking OAPs heading for Spain, he says. But Brexit Britain will still need the hotel staff and IT professionals it needs now.

‘This is the space between Brexit At Any Cost and simple reversal of the referendum decision.’

Alas, this is where Blair’s timing may have been defective in undermining his message. Just as it emerged, Andrew Adonis, was writing in the Observer, scornfully and powerfully, that ‘as the slow-motion car crash advances, we need a plan for stopping it’. His own vehicle? A referendum on whatever May’s EU deal – or lack of one – produces, so that voters can draw back from disaster. And how to get one? By using the anti-Brexit majority in the Lords to insert that requirement into the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, says Adonis.

That alone will not be enough. His hunch is that by next year Labour will be ready to back that option as ‘the only way to disown May without taking responsibility for anything else,’ much as Harold Wilson embraced the Bennite heresy of a referendum to solve a party management problem in 1975 – and Cameron did the same in 2016.

Unelected Lord Adonis is a very clever chap but one whose nose for retail politics sometimes misleads him. If Chancellor Merkel and President Macron – they, not Michel Barnier, will decide – can be persuaded to cede more national control over immigration in return for the UK remaining inside the EU’s economic (not political) institutions, ‘ I believe the referendum can be won,’ he says.

But just as Blair and Adonis were floating their slightly conflicting Cunning Plans (not coordinated, I suspect) stalwart Remain MPs were lining up to debate the Withdrawal Bill. They used the opportunity to assure sceptical colleagues that they now accept that the UK will leave the EU. Keir Starmer said it in terms. Even doughty Ken Clarke, heir to Ted Heath as Westminster’s European standard-bearer, said it, albeit reluctantly before abstaining on the main vote. Anna Soubry, who is becoming Clarke’s pugnacious political heiress, told the House that anyone who claims otherwise about her is peddling lies.

It’s worth stressing at this point that pretty much everyone, except Hard Brexit Diehards and Remain Ultras, is currently being ambiguous on how best to proceed, ministers included. Corbyn backs Starmer’s case for staying in both the single market and customs union during the Brexit transition and even casually suggested in an interview with Radio 4’s World at One that he’d like to find a way – ‘outcome, not nomenclature’ – for staying longer. In his speech to this week’s TUC conference he spoke of ‘full access’.

Confusing, isn’t it? In the FT Starmer floated thoughts about staying in the customs union, an option which the Commons treasury select committee – now chaired by sacked cabinet minister, Nicky Morgan – also plans to investigate. For his part David Davis tells MPs that the much-touted ‘Norway for now’ option of being inside the single market – but outside the EU – may be the worst of both worlds. Yet he also wants to be outside while retaining the ‘exact same benefits’ and do so ‘as closely as possible.’ No wonder Juncker thinks he’s not up to the job and other Brussels bigwigs whisper than the chances of ‘substantial progress’ being made by late October – the key to opening trade talks – are slipping fast.

In a world where nominal Republican Donald Trump can cut a budget deal with the Democrats which cuts out his own side, anything can happen. That’s the point really. The political sat-navs which have guided our lives since 1945, usually with predictable outcomes, have lost their GPS and are all over the place. So much so that No 10 officials can send out a naïve round robin letter to 100 FTSE 100 chairmen, asking them to back May’s Brexit strategy, naively not expecting many to refuse to sign an open cheque – or someone to leak it to the press. One hundred is far too big a circle for confidentiality. I cannot think of another No 10 machine that would have been so clumsy.

The awkward fact is that, while business usually likes to steer clear of political trouble and focus on the bottom line, many CEOs and chairmen, entrepreneurs too, are quietly fuming at the government’s ineptitude. Ministers invite them to second-rate briefings on their negotiations, but there is only so much of David Davis’s chirpiness they can take. What they suspect is a PR exercise, not a genuine consultation on what is best for the economy. ‘These are bad people doing bad things and doing them badly,’ one City type remarks.

Davis remains unperturbed, though less unperturbed than he was, some MPs noted during the Withdrawal debate. Had Davis the Backbench Rebel and libertarian not railed as recently as 2015 against the kind of arbitrary powers he is now putting to the House, they asked? He had indeed, side by side with Labour’s Tom Watson in a battle over the Data Protection and Investigatory Powers Act. Given his record, they might well trust the DExEU secretary’s sincerity, MPs told him. But who could say who might wield these sweeping powers in the years to come? Jeremy Corbyn? Jacob Rees-Mogg?

Davis’s gloss on the bill was threefold: to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act which took Britain into the then-Common Market; to take a ‘snapshot’ of EU law (including 12,000 regulations) that would otherwise fall away and entrench it into British law; and to provide ministers with the power to correct ‘deficiencies’ and remove anomalies arising during a two year period, starting on Exit Day and ending with a ‘sunset clause’ that terminates that power. Actual policies will remain the same, MPs were assured.

Well, no. Not exactly. MPs fell over themselves to point out that what had originally been called the Great Repeal Bill – now split into eight bills to untangle those Whitehall departments most affected by EU policy, like agriculture and fishing – is actually the Great Reintroduction Bill, its ironical purpose to import into Brexit Britain great swathes of EU law.

What’s more, the one conspicuous exception would be the European Charter of Fundamental Rights (ECFR) which the Blair/Brown governments also resisted in the run-up to the Lisbon Treaty of 2011. It relates mostly to EU law and we have better protections of our own, said ministers. Ah, but the right of an individual – not just a corporation – to take action based on a repatriated (‘retained’) EU law will be lost, protested Dominic Grieve QC, the sacked Tory attorney general. One of my constituents used it to win a case in the UK Supreme Court, interjected Joanna Cherry, a very sharp SNP lawyer herself.

In a ‘brilliant’ speech that was praised by MPs on both sides and all parties, Labour’s shadow DExEU secretary, Keir Starmer, focussed on the Henry VIII controversy. This is the powers granted ministers under Clause 9 of the bill which have alarmed the Hansard Society (‘a legislative blank cheque’) and the Lords constitutional committee whose new report speaks of ‘unprecedented and extraordinary powers’ that challenge the very separation of authority between government and parliament, executive and legislature.

The 80 to 100 statutory instruments (SI) that will be needed for this bill alone (down from an estimated 1,000 because seven other bills have been hived off) can, in theory, be defeated by a negative procedural vote of MPs. But no SI has been reversed in this manner since a rise in the price of paraffin was quashed in the dying days of the Callaghan government in 1979. MPs on both sides – some more fastidious Brexit MPs included – want a special select committee to ride shotgun on the process.

It is one of the controversies where Grieve, Clarke, Soubry and Co are warning they will vote with the opposition in the eight days ( cries of ‘not long enough’) of committee stage examination. Expect ministers to back down. It will not be the only enforced retreat. Critics were keen to know exactly when Exit Day will be because these new powers will only come into force then. Shouldn’t that day be named specifically on the bill – March 29th 2019 being the obvious date, two years after Article 50 – said some. No, not until we have been allowed to vote on the Brexit Deal, countered Labour’s Chukka Ummana, in an echo of Blair/Adonis thinking.

Without more clarity those powers could be use retrospectively to change the very bill they were debating, MPs protested. Would the House be able to debate the terms of the Brexit Deal before that happens? Would they get to see whatever is eventually agreed to be the Brexit divorce settlement? And how will the Supreme Court square its new independence from EU law with the bill’s commitment to follow ‘retained’ EU law? Ex-minister and super-brain, Oliver Letwin, was not the only MP to spot an ambiguity. Tory farmer, Richard Benyon asked about the threat of heavy EU fines which frightened Whitehall into compliance with laudable environmental policies. I have to report that those parts of the two-day debate I watched or read showed less of the acrimony evident in other places, though David Davis had to resist backbench Tory suggestions that his opponents are ‘not serving the national interest’ – or ‘traitors’ as the Mail’s Paul Dacre and Unite’s Len McCluskey might put it. That’s good, civility is going to matter a lot if we are to get through Brexit (or no Brexit, Tony and Andrew) in reasonably good shape.

When MPs fought over the European Union (Amendment) Bill in the turbulent years of 1992-93, passions had also been aroused on both sides over John Major’s support for the integrating Maastricht Treaty, though he had negotiated opt-outs, including from the social chapter. Neil Kinnock had just been unexpectedly defeated in the April general election and John Smith – a Scots lawyer who was ardently pro-Europe and pro-devolution – succeeded him.

In tandem with Eurosceptics on both sides Smith used the opt-out from the social chapter as a justification to harry the bill mercilessly through late night sessions – the committee stage was done in the whole house – and brought Major to a damaging confidence vote, narrowly won, at the end of it. Ahead of the Black Wednesday sterling crisis – when the pound fell out of the embryo-single currency – the newly-elected government’s reputation was badly dented and never fully recovered.

The Corbyn team clearly hope to do the same and have withdrawn ‘pairing’ arrangements that allow MPs to leave Westminster. A repeat performance of 1992 looms this winter. But pro-EU Smith did not vote against either the second or third reading. Labour officially abstained though some left-wingers, including Jeremy Corbyn, joined with right-wing Tory rebels in the second reading vote, carried by 360 to 92. In a Commons which was far livelier and boisterous than today there was a lot of high drama and anger against a background of deep economic uncertainty. But the recession ended and Britain recovered. It usually does.

As Ken Clarke was the first to point out in the latest EU Amendment debate we now face a mirror image, not so much of Maastricht (when he was home secretary) but of the 1972 debate on EU entry when, as a junior whip, he negotiated with Roy Jenkins (Adonis’s political hero) to join with pro-European Labour rebels and thwart backbench euro-sceptics of left and right who wanted to defeat Ted Heath.

What goes round comes round again. The Eurosceptics have finally won. But reading the Withdrawal debate I was struck – yet again – by the uneasy sense that they don’t quite know what they want, that the economic and lawyerly brains are mostly on the other side. Reports keep popping up to assure us that British universities top the world league, as does the City of London as a financial centre. Good, though we should all find it harder to believe a report suggesting that Britain is still the world’s second most influential power (after the US, not China).

Fantasy or not, it helps keep us cheerful as other indicators – inflation, pay, business confidence and exports point the other way. One of the big US banks is predicting that the euro will officially be confirmed as more valuable than the pound by the end of the month. That may be a tricky moment against which to champion Mrs May’s bill.

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