This is the text of Lord Bridges’ speech to the House of Lords on the Withdrawal Bill.
“My Lords, the years of Brexit are like dog years – each one feels like seven – so it feels like about a decade ago that I was sitting in DExEU talking to officials about the drafting of this Bill. Back then, the Bill, which cuts and pastes EU law into UK law, had been given the thoroughly Orwellian title “The Great Repeal Bill”, which is probably the best example of double-think that I have ever come across. The Bill’s title has changed but its purpose has not. To sum it up in one sentence, its purpose is to ensure that the UK leaves the European Union in a stable and orderly way.
“I know full well that many of your Lordships have misgivings about various aspects of the Bill and many of those misgivings boil down to two words: parliamentary sovereignty. I have more than some sympathy, for when I was a Minister I struggled with some of the issues that the UK’s withdrawal raises, and perhaps I may focus on just two.
“The first is the Henry VIII powers. I was, and remain, very wary of giving any Government Henry VIII powers but, if we are to leave the EU in an orderly way, I see the necessity for these powers so long as they have appropriate safeguards. That is why, as a Minister, I took the view that the powers should be limited and have a sunset clause, otherwise the Government would have the mother of all Henry VIII powers. No doubt they would be dubbed by the historians among us “the Elizabeth of York powers”.
“Does the Bill get the balance right so that the Government have sufficient powers and Parliament sufficient scrutiny? We can and must debate that. Yesterday’s very thorough report from the Select Committee on the Constitution contains a number of points that certainly merit consideration by Ministers. However, let us not forget a simple point. If we were radically to dilute these proposed powers, the more primary legislation we might need to pass, the longer that would take and the more uncertainty we might create—more uncertainty and a greater risk of a disorderly exit. However one voted in the referendum, surely one thing that unites us is a wish for the process of our leaving to be orderly and stable.
“The second conundrum is where powers lie once they have been repatriated to the UK. Here, the overriding aim must be to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom’s single market but, until the final shape of our new relationship is known, it is difficult to be completely clear about which powers currently held in the EU will lie where in the UK. This is why, as I have argued before, we must clarify the outline of the future EU-UK relationship in the current set of negotiations in Europe and we must have a transitional period during which all existing arrangements here in the UK and in our relationship with the EU remain the same. That will give us time to negotiate the details of the EU-UK relationship and we can resolve where repatriated powers should lie within the UK. We need to achieve this agreement with the EU about the transition and, crucially, the shape of the final agreement this year.
“That brings me to my final point, which is also about those two words – parliamentary sovereignty. Four months ago, I asked a very simple question in this House: what is the country we wish to build once we have left the European Union? Only once we have answered this question can we properly and fully answer the second question: what agreement do we want to strike with the European Union? What do we value more – parliamentary sovereignty and control or market access and trade?
“Four months on and there are still no clear answers to those basic, critical questions. All we hear day after day are conflicting, confusing voices. If this continues and Ministers cannot agree among themselves on the future relationship that the Government want, how can this Prime Minister possibly negotiate clear and precise heads of terms for the future relationship with the EU? My fear is that we will get meaningless waffle in a political declaration in October. The implementation period will not be a bridge to a clear destination; it will be a gangplank into thin air. The EU will have the initiative in the second stage of the negotiations and we will find ourselves forced to accept a deal that gives us access to EU markets without UK politicians having a meaningful say over swathes of legislation and regulation.
“Some may say that this outcome would not be the end of the world. Some may say that it is inevitable. My point is this: at this pivotal moment in our history, we cannot – and must not – indulge in that very British habit of just muddling through. With under 300 working days left until we leave the European Union, we need to know the Government’s answers to these simple questions. They go to the heart of the matter: the powers of this Parliament and parliamentary sovereignty. The Government must be honest with themselves and the public about the choices we face. Then, the Prime Minister and her Cabinet must make those choices. As has been said, to govern is to choose. As we face the biggest challenge this country has faced since the Second World War, keeping every option open is no longer an option.”