The conclusion of the Commons stages of the Brexit withdrawal agreement in just three days last week, with a majority of 99, gives the impression of a government in a hurry to deliver. Which it clearly is, in the sense of its self-imposed deadline of 31 January – though it seems in a little less of a hurry to deliver the ‘healing’, which cause Johnson espoused immediately post-election and then repeated in his New Year message. Though his wouldn’t, of course, be the first government to preach reconciliation and practise division – Thatcher did something similar in, and then following, 1979.
While the election has settled the principle of Brexit for, er, a generation, there remains a number of problems about what Brexit looks like which will continue beyond 31 January and as the future trade relationship is settled. Chief among these is that, while the 2016 referendum was, as Chris Grey has continued to argue, a vote against something, there has, opinion polls and politicians’ assertions apart, been no attempt to define what it might have been a vote for. Labour’s stance of seeking a fresh deal and then putting that to the electorate remains, in this context, the right stance to have taken in principle, however much it turned out to be electorally unpopular – though that is a battle now lost. In seeking that definition, there is a number of battlegrounds set out in last week’s passage of the Bill through the Commons which indicates the government’s general direction compared to the previous version (full list here):
– workers’ rights being removed from the Bill and re-located to a suggested new Employment Bill. The concern remains that this will be used to drive workers’ rights downwards in a race to the bottom
– a clause giving ministers the power to direct the courts on the interpretation of EU law and to allow lower courts the power to overturn rulings by the European Court of Justice, something of particular concern to those of us worried about workers’ rights
– a removal of the right of unaccompanied child refugees in the UK to be reunited with their families
– a rejection of a series of clauses to improve citizens’ rights and a potential withdrawal of teeth from the ‘independent’ monitoring authority, which has already attracted the attention of the European Parliament, whose role in approving the final withdrawal agreement remains critical
– a rejection of the attempt to impose in the Bill a requirement to seek continued participation in Erasmus, the EU programme facilitating study abroad
– a refusal to consider mitigating the impact on firms in Northern Ireland of the volte face over the presence of a border down the Irish Sea and checks on goods crossing that border east-west, together with the inclusion of ‘Henry VIII’ powers on the parts of the withdrawal agreement focusing on Northern Ireland
– a refusal to countenance a block on the negotiation of future trade deals until parliament had approved an overall mandate. Taking back control did not, it seems, encompass much of a vision for the role of parliament vis-à-vis the government.
The Lords are, given the outcome of the election and the super-majority that the Johnson government now possesses, unlikely to mess around with any of this too much, although Lord Dubs certainly isn’t giving up and the Lords Constitution Committee is sounding the alarm on lower courts being able to overturn ECJ decisions.
On any one of these issues, a government in possession of a desire to effect some actual reconciliation, and even ‘healing’, could have made some moves towards meeting the demands of the MPs sponsoring amendments and to limit the extent to which people not only working but building their lives in this country could be viewed as people rather than as an economic resource with all the division and rancour that entails – but, no.
The response to some of these is that further legislation will be brought forward – but there are no guarantees on that and the content is inevitably currently unknown. The response to others is that meeting such demands would have ‘weakened the hands’ of negotiators and that progress may still be made on them, presumably via trade-offs. That highlights that such issues as workers’ rights continue to be seen as potential bargaining chips – a matter of disgrace. In others, we need to remember that meaningful negotiations, outside the area of a free trade agreement, have all but finished. Furthermore, in terms of understanding, it represents a failure to understand that modern negotiations is based on conversing about the achievement of mutual gains in which your strategy remains hidden but in which your aims are very much disclosed – and, frequently, strengthened by demonstrations of extensive popular support.
There was a potential win – or even series of wins – for the government here which it has simply chosen to ignore.
Instead, we have the spectacle of Brexit ultras in parliament, whose numbers have increased as a result of the election and the deliberate selection of Tory candidates committed to Johnson’s approach, and who are little more now than lobby fodder, seeking to grind its victory humiliatingly into the faces of opponents. Furthermore, we have the ludicrous, time-wasting spectacle of a public debate over whether Big Ben should strike at 11pm on 31 January, with at least the early crowdfunding of the requisite ‘bungs’, i.e. ahead of Mark Francois’s donation appearing to fall somewhat flat (‘bob a job’ has got expensive these days, although it’s probably marginally more cost effective than Francois climbing up there to do the job himself). Not only that, but there is the approval (from the Mayor of London) for a ‘Leave Means Leave’ event in Parliament Square on 31 January, whose triumphalist tone and nature can only be imagined at this stage but which also just chances to coincide in the same place with a gathering of far-right street thugs being planned by the English Defence League. Likely to be a joyous occasion, I’m sure. But, if they want to celebrate it, then they can own what happens in its wake.
Healing it’s not. But then, healing is far from the minds of the ultras and, by definition, this government. Offering anything to the 48% of us who voted ‘in’ in 2016, or to the majority of the electorate which voted for remain parties in the 2019 general election, or to the probable majority of people who would now vote ‘in’ (currently the same as the general election outcome, incidentally) – such as dynamic alignment of rights, the Norway model, Canada+++ or, heaven forfend, single market membership – would be seen as a betrayal of the one true Brexit. Thus, the call for reconciliation is entirely superficial. The ‘People’s Government’ is just for Leavers – or, at least, that section of Leavers which also voted Tory, given that the Tories’ electoral base has become predominantly Eurosceptic.
Oh – and #ReleaseTheRussiaReport. We all know at this stage of Brexit that it’s more embarrassing (probably most of all for Johnson himself) than revelatory. Even were it the latter, it won’t now stop Brexit; as Brittany Kaiser’s (otherwise extremely useful) whistle-blowing revelations that Robert Mercer funded both Leave.EU and Vote Leave campaigns will also not do. Unfortunately. Nevertheless, people being defrauded and then having the wool pulled over their eyes is never an edifying spectacle – and prolonging the period in which the report is not released is just compounding it.