Dominic Grieve believes Brexit is a revolution, “and the trouble with revolutions is you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next.”
In this interview he explains why he regards the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill as “an absolute monstrosity”, in which “the safeguards have been chucked out of the window”, and sets out what in his view is needed to put this right.
He also emphasises that in order to ensure proper parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit, and avoid a second Gina Mlller challenge, this cannot be the end of the legislative process: “There will have to be another Bill to get us out of the EU, once we know what the final settlement is going to be.”
Grieve, MP for Beaconsfield since 1997 and Attorney-General from 2010 until sacked by David Cameron in 2014, strongly opposed Brexit but now accepts that unless there is “a sea-change in public opinion”, it is going to happen.
He has long been recognised as one of the few Conservatives with the ability (in the words of one of his colleagues) “to flllet a Bill”, a task he undertook while the party was in opposition before 2010, and which as a senior backbencher he is performing now: “I’m doing a deeply conservative thing with a small ‘c’. I’m trying to ensure the revolution is tempered by some legal principle as we go through it, and that the Government accepts it can’t just have short cuts.”
On his mother’s side, Grieve has strong family connections with France, and on the mantlepiece of his office stands a 19th-century bronze clock, surmounted by a bust of a classical figure.
An inquiry from ConHome about the identity of this figure produced a startling revelation: “It’s Hippocrates [the father of medicine]. The clock belonged to my five times great grandfather, who was a French doctor in Paris in the early 19th century. I’ve got a medal thanking him for his devotion in the cholera outbreak of 1832, given to him by the city of Paris, but I also have to say that he wrote what was then the definitive treatise on nymphomania.”
ConHome: “I’ll go and look it up. Do you have a copy of it?”
Grieve: “I don’t have a copy of it, no. They are available online. I suspect they may be of interest to people who are not necessarily medically qualified.”
ConHome: “Is there any route by which in your view Britain could stay in the European Union?”
Grieve: “I think for us to stay in the European Union would require two things to happen. One, it would require a sea-change in public opinion. And then linked to that would have to be a willingness of our EU27 partners to have us back.
“It might be that they would be very happy to have us back. It might be that they would be sufficiently concerned at our ambivalence not to be interested.
“What might trigger such a sea-change is I think pure speculation. But none of this I think is very likely.
“So I act on the assumption that we will leave the European Union in due course, presumably at the end of our two-year period.”
ConHome: “Now on the actual European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, you’ve used some very strong language. You’ve called it ‘an astonishing monstrosity’.”
Grieve: “It is a monstrosity of a Bill. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bit of legislation in which the government seeks to arrogate to itself such powers, in order to carry out what I accept is a revolutionary change, and that is very difficult.
“The reality is we are having to disentangle 50 years of legal entanglement, and because of the depth of that merger it’s a very difficult thing to do. So the Government has some sympathy from me, but faced with this very difficult task it has to resort to rather draconian methods to bring it about.
“But that having been said, the Bill as drafted is not acceptable. But I am convinced that with a little bit of good will it can be improved to make it acceptable. My view is that at the moment it remains a monstrosity.”
ConHome: “Why did they get it so wrong first time round?”
Grieve: “I’ve no idea. You’d have to ask them why they did.”
ConHome: “So what are the main changes that you require?”
Grieve: “I think there are three main areas that need some attention. One you need to look at the Henry VIII powers and see where they’re excessive and unnecessary… I accept there are going to have to be some Henry VIII powers, but you need a proper parliamentary scrutiny system for dealing with it, which is not provided for in the Bill at all, and that can be done.
“Time is going to be very short. I don’t suppose this Bill is going to be on the statute book before Easter of next year. It might be March, but I don’t see it happening earlier than that with the House of Lords phase. So they’re only going to have 12 months to implement all these Statutory Instruments that they’re going to have to do.
“At the moment EU law is significantly different from UK law. Some people don’t like it, indeed I can’t say I’m a great fan of EU law, I’m an old-fashioned common lawyer. But it has its own interpretation, it has its own safeguards, and it has its own very unusual way of being created.
“Now the Government’s kept the creation, it’s taken it over and said it’s now going to be UK law, but the safeguards have been chucked out of the window, because they argue that these safeguards are not part of our normal common law principles.
“Well if I may say so I don’t think that’s the right way of doing it. I think you’ve got to accept that while we obviously leave the jurisdiction of the ECJ, our own Supreme Court is obviously going to have to be substituted for the ECJ, to interpret EU law until we get rid of it as EU law. And that’s what the Government has not done.
“That’s why Lord Neuberger made his comments, when he said he was troubled that the law left a lot of uncertainties.
“What role does Parliament have in the final deal? The reality is that the Government is almost certainly going to need a further statute to get us out at the end. I’m absolutely convinced of it. It won’t be possible, because they are going to want to dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s about the future arrangements.”
ConHome: “Which haven’t been settled yet.”
Grieve: “Which haven’t been settled yet. So I find it very difficult to give the Government a blank cheque with this Bill. At some point when we have a deal we will need to vote on it. In my opinion we will need a short piece of primary legislation.
“The risk otherwise for the Government is that someone like Gina Miller challenges it again in the Supreme Court, which is the last thing the Government wants.”
ConHome: “There’s absolutely no danger at that point of a second referendum?”
Grieve: “The question of a second referendum is in my opinion dependent on whether there were to be a major change in public opinion.
“I’m alive to the fact that we are in, to my mind, revolutionary times. We have initiated revolution. I realise that some of my more dyed-in-the-wool Conservative Brexit colleagues might find that a difficult thing to follow, because they think they’ve acted in the name of tradition, but actually they’ve perpetrated a revolution, and the trouble with revolutions is you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next.”
ConHome: “Kerensky can give way…”
Grieve: “Kerensky can give way to Lenin and Lenin can give way to Stalin. I’m afraid it’s a very unBritish thing to do, but there we are. We haven’t done it for 300 years.”
ConHome: “Obviously we shouldn’t have had the first referendum.”
Grieve: “Well I don’t know about that. I voted for it so I must take responsibility. David Cameron did it to try to resolve issues, and it didn’t resolve the issues in the way that he had intended. That’s water under the bridge.
“Labour have approached this slightly differently, because they’re trying to use this legislation to force the Government to stay in the Single Market, and I don’t agree with that, that isn’t what this Bill is about.”
ConHome: “Presumably you know Sir Keir Starmer quite well?”
Grieve: “I know Keir very well. I have a very high regard for Keir and he’s pursuing a perfectly legitimate agenda for an opposition party.”
ConHome: “You were smiling very broadly at various points when Keir spoke on the first day of the debate.”
Grieve: “I smiled broadly I suppose for two reasons. One it was classic Keir, he has a very lawyerly way of dealing with things, he’s a lawyer more than a politician, although he’s learning, and secondly I thought most of the points he was making were well made. He pointed out where the Bill didn’t do what it said it was going to do.”
ConHome: “What did you think of the Foreign Secretary’s recent article in the Daily Telegraph?”
Grieve: “I disagreed with large parts of it.”
ConHome: “What in particular?”
Grieve: “I was startled to see the resurrection of the £350 million, which I would have thought myself was a subject best left parked. If we’re going to get through this process there is a need for collective responsibility.”
ConHome: “Many Eurosceptics would say this is actually having a revivifying effect on Parliament. You’re in your element doing this stuff in fact.”
Grieve: “Well it’s certainly given me something to keep me busy. I was drafting amendments – I thought it’s eight years since I drafted any amendments. In government you don’t really draft any amendments.
“I should make clear the amendments are not designed to wreck the legislation. I’m doing a deeply conservative thing with a small ‘c’. I’m trying to ensure the revolution is tempered by some legal principle as we go through it, and that the Government accepts it can’t just have short cuts.
“Sitting up late at night trying to make head or tail of a piece of legislation and then trying to draft some creative amendments is an old skill which I’ve had to hone down. Oddly enough, I once did a Bill with Boris. Proceeds of Crime Bill. I tabled 318 amendments. We’ve even got Boris at the bottom.”
He produced from a shelf a framed copy of this Bill, signed by the various Conservatives who had been involved. In words which will perhaps one day be applied to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, Boris had scrawled: “Dominic, it’s been an education and a privilege. You made them listen and probably improved the damn thing.”