Does the Internal Markets Bill Compromise Work?

Does the Internal Markets Bill Compromise Work?

That rather depends on what the aim is

But first, what does it actually do? The government’s compromise with Sir Bob Neill on his amendment does the following:-

  1. It gives the House of Commons (but not the Lords) the right to vote before the government triggers the clauses disapplying the provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement and the Act implementing it. It might even be (but hasn’t been – yet) called a Meaningful Vote.
    In a week when: – (a) regulations enacting new criminal offences were made 20 minutes before coming into force, without Parliament having any say at all;
    (b) the Speaker reprimanded the Health Secretary for announcing lockdown restrictions at 10 pm on Twitter rather than to the House; (c) despite that reprimand, the Housing Minister doing the self-same thing in a TV interview a few days later; I suppose we should be grateful that the executive has finally remembered that the Commons actually exists and should be playing some sort of role in legislation. Or, at least, the only legislation the government is bothered about.
  2. In return for this “concession”, the government is going to: – (a) determine when the provisions will be triggered – essentially when it unilaterally decides that the EU is acting in bad faith, though it has graciously decided to try and use the dispute resolution mechanisms as well; (b) bring in its own amendment limiting the ability to judicially review the government’s exercise of these powers. It is also proposing to put provisions in the next Finance Act, disapplying yet further provisions of the WA.

From the government’s perspective, this is a huge win rather than any sort of compromise. The issue with the Internal Markets Bill was not the mechanism used but the fact that the government was deliberately planning to ignore and breach key parts of an agreement it willingly entered into less than a year ago. The fact that the Commons gets a vote on this does not change what the government is doing. Indeed, giving itself the unilateral right to decide if and when the EU is in breach of the WA is itself a further breach by the government. The Commons’ approval does not cure the breach of a treaty by the government which negotiated it, signed it, promoted it and enacted it.  All it means is that the PM has ensured that his MPs have their hands steeped in blood, that any prospective rebels will likely fold, with any recalcitrant ones easy to pick off. It’s an impressive piece of party management. And spin: the so-called compromise is a feint. If French might be permitted, what the government is doing is reculer pour mieux sauter.

Look at the clause trying to oust the jurisdiction of the courts. This is a further clear breach of the WA. It seeks to stop any legal challenge to how it uses its powers; it plans to stop people with private rights given to them under the WA but taken away by this Bill from going to court to seek a remedy. Will such an ouster clause work? There is some doubt: leaving citizens without any legal remedy may in itself be a breach of the Human Rights Act. In any event, the courts are very resistant to any attempt to prevent the courts even considering whether a power is being used lawfully. Previous attempts to do so have not been successful.

Regardless of what the outcome of such legal challenges might be, the government might well regard this too as a “win”: a battle with the judges, with human rights, with EU courts (remember the EU has reserved the right to take legal action against the British government) plays well into a mindset of Britain battling against obstructive foreigners and lawyers. And it helps provide yet further justification for what the government has already clearly signalled it wants to do: restricting or eliminating any scrutiny of – or legal restraints on – its actions.

Yes – it all seems to be going very well for the government. In the short-term anyway. And if the main aim is to keep the Tory party and its voters happy. The appearance of things and Party unity: these are what matter to this government.

As for the EU, it will have noted that, just as last year, getting a deal which can be sold as a success to Tory voters is what matters. If they want to, something can doubtless be cobbled together which will give the PM the “victory over the EU” he craves.

Who much cares about the substance of any deal, whether it will harm or help Britain? Or about the damage done to Britain’s reputation as a country whose word can be trusted? Or about its belief in the rule of law? Those who do can simply be ignored or derided.

But there is another British victory to cherish – though one unlikely to be trumpeted by Brexiteers themselves. 32 years after Mrs Thatcher’s Bruges speech, which so dismayed members of her government, the EU and pro-Europeans, a President of the EU Commission quoted Mrs Thatcher’s words to the European Parliament in an explicit rebuke to the departing British –

“Britain does not break treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world and bad for any future treaty on trade.”

We will learn soon enough whether Mrs Thatcher was right. In a delicious irony, the current Tory party will be hoping that she was wrong.


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