Down the ages, people have searched in vain for a way to produce a perpetual motion machine, before the laws of thermodynamics supposedly confirmed that such a device could never exist. Unfortunately for Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, they have been shown up as idiots by the Labour Party’s Brexit policy, which demonstrates that it is indeed possible to move continuously without applying any effort.
The latest twist in this peculiar tale is the decision to whip Labour MPs to vote against giving the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill a Second Reading. Impressively, this ties Labour’s position up in even more knots than before.
As Iain Duncan Smith relates this morning, a vote against Second Reading is a vote against the principle of a Bill – arguably leaving Labour openly opposed to Brexit only a few months after their manifesto promised to implement it.
The purpose of the Bill itself is to copy EU law across into UK law in one great tranche, in order to provide legal and regulatory continuity when we leave. Had Labour succeeded in killing it, the effect would be to cancel all EU law on the day after Brexit. So last night those claiming they oppose “Hard Brexit” (whatever that might mean) voted for the most extreme possible severance of our relationship with the EU – no equal regulations on food, or cars, or flights, or exports, or health and safety. Next time any of the Labour MPs who voted against the Bill claim Brexit would mean abolishing workers’ rights, for example, they should be asked why they voted to do exactly that.
Supposedly, the Opposition’s reason for objecting to the Bill is that the powers it grants the executive are excessive. Some even compared the proposals to the tyrannical behaviour of Putin and Erdogan. The stated purpose of these powers is to make the copied across laws work after Brexit – to edit them to replace defunct references to EU institutions and policies with references to UK institutions and policies. As Duncan Smith lays out, there is a reasonable case to be made for a tighter safeguard to be put in place, to ensure that such powers are only used for their intended purpose.
But the idea that the very existence of such powers must be an outrageous step towards dictatorship is farcical. If it is an affront to democracy for Ministers to be able to edit EU laws without Parliamentary approval, surely it was an even greater affront for the EU to be able to introduce those laws in the first place, wholesale? And yet, far from opposing such a system, most of the Labour MPs who now gnash their teeth actively campaigned to keep those vast powers in Brussels.
By tying itself in these further knots, the Opposition has only made more troubles for itself. By forcing the question of a Second Reading to a whipped and contested vote, they have also given the Government an early opportunity to demonstrate its majority on Brexit. Not only were their no Tory rebels against Second Reading (though Ken Clarke rebelled on the motion setting out the timing), and the expected support from the DUP, there were seven Labour rebels who voted for the progress of the Bill.