Bernard Jenkin is Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, MP for Harwich and North Essex, and Chair of the European Research Group’s Steering Committee.
An Open letter to the Chair of the Harwich and North Essex Conservative Association.
Many have been asking what will happen this week, as the Commons embarks on the Committee Stage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill (the EUW Bill).
This Bill will be closely fought by the opposition parties, because they see an opportunity. They hope that perhaps, with the support of some Conservative MPs, they can inflict defeats on the Government to force substantial changes. Some, who have not accepted the result of the EU referendum, are still hoping that this may delay the UK leaving the EU, or even lead to it not happening at all. Last week, the pro-Remain fightback group, Open Britain, launched a campaign to try to revoke the UK’s notification to leave the EU. Some hope that this Bill will prove as controversial and divisive as that passed prior to ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, which spent a near-record 23 days in Committee of the whole House.
But few Conservatives will have much patience with attempts to wreck this Bill. We respect the very few Tories in the Commons, such as Ken Clarke, who have always had a very pro-EU view, but today they are very isolated. The reason why Maastricht was so divisive is that most Conservatives never wanted it, and yet John Major’s Government insisted on it. It refused to have any referendum. It actually never ruled out joining the single currency. Most Conservatives never wanted political and monetary union. Most only ever wanted trade and cooperation with our EU partners. Now we are leaving the EU, we will be free to pursue exactly that.
The EUW Bill will go through, because there has been a referendum. The only reason that about half of Conservative MPs supported Remain under David Cameron was out of loyalty to the leader. Still, roughly half the MPs none the less supported Leave. If David and George Osborne had been campaigning for Leave, all but a tiny group of Conservative MPs would have been for it. The vast majority of Conservative MPs truly accept the result.
David deserves credit for settling the EU question. As someone who campaigned for Leave, I can recall all only too well how the odds were stacked against us. The fact that Leave won against them suggests that any attempt to re-run the referendum would be result in a far bigger Leave vote. The country accepts the result, and wants us to get on with it. So any subtle attempts to re-open the referendum question by amending this Bill will fail. It is estimated that more than 65 per cent of MPs’ constituencies voted Leave.
The EUW Bill got a second reading vote of 326 to 290, a majority of 36, with the support of the ten DUP MPs and some Labour dissidents. Unlike the Maastricht Bill, the Government also won the vote to impose a timetable on the rest of the Bill’s consideration. So we have already made a good start.
This Bill is not about whether the UK will leave the EU. MPs decided that when the Commons voted by an overwhelming 498 votes to 114 to invoke Article 50, which sets out that “the treaties shall cease to apply … two years after the notification”. The only question relevant to the EUW Bill is whether we leave with a functioning statute book or not.
There will be a crucial vote on the “exit date”, which the Government now proposes shall be on 29th March 2019, which is “two years after notification”. Parliament should settle the date, rather than let the Government decide this later. The EU keeps saying “the clock is ticking”, and has made no suggestion that this date will be extended, at least not without exacting price. Anyone who votes against this date needs to explain why they are confident there will be a different one.
Some will say that the Bill must be amended, to make sure that any Withdrawal Agreement is only signed after being approved by an Act of Parliament. A new Act may be necessary after signing, so that we can implement such an agreement. Parliament will have a meaningful vote on any such agreement. If Parliament votes against such an agreement agreement, or against a Bill to enact it, the UK would simply have to leave the EU without the agreement. An amendment to that effect doesn’t sound very responsible.
There are bound to be some changes to this Bill, because it is an unusual one. It contains powers for government to propose changes to laws by order, instead of by acts of parliamen (albeit any significant order has to be approved by Parliament). The relationships with the devolved parliaments and administrations needs careful thought and discussion. But the guts of this Bill is about converting EU law, as it applies in the UK, into statute law, as neatly as possible, creating the minimum of disruption. That is all. After the UK leaves the EU, then Parliament can change any law it wants. To that extent, this is just a temporary measure. Any Conservative MP who is trying to make this Bill or the negotiations more difficult or complicated, and threatening the Government, will be testing the patience of their colleagues, and of other Conservatives, who want this Government to succeed.