If the Finance Bill doesn’t appear next week, Brexiteers can assume the Withdrawal Agreement is here to stay
There is no date set yet for the parliamentary Christmas recess but it’s likely to be 17 December. This year it’s more significant than usual because it will mark the end of the opportunity for the Government to pass legislation before the UK legally leaves the EU transition period at the end of the year.
Even if they work at breakneck speed the Government needs about two weeks to get a Bill into law before that date, unless they are planning to recall Parliament from recess. There will be much tighter margins if there are days of debate on an EU trade deal in the Commons, which means the week beginning the 30 November will probably be the last moment No.10 can bring a Bill before the Commons and have a chance of getting it through.
No.10 have been promising the ERG for months that they will pass a second bit of legislation needed to help nullify the Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland protocol before we leave the EU. The first bit was the Internal Market Bill, which was introduced to howls of anguish over its showily claimed intention to break international law. Even the UKIMB, as it is now referred to in Whitehall, has still not yet become law: it awaits a third reading in the Lords.
The timetabling of the UKIMB is at the discretion of the government’s business managers: it’s therefore No 10’s very deliberate decision not to put it into law, yet. There are still hurdles to go through after the Lords have finished amending it and Brexiteer cynics wonder if it will ever see the light of statute day. Longtime Brexit veterans have expressed to me considerable scepticism about the idea that the House of Lords will upend any aspect of the Government’s Brexit policy. ‘The idea’, one said, ‘that they’re [the Remain majority in the Lords] going to take us to a disorderly exit [by voting down legislation needed to leave with a Deal] or some sort of No Deal-by-accident-of-peerage is for the birds’.
Brexiteers wonder why Boris Johnson would break the agreement after it’s already in force if he’s not prepared to do so now
The second bit of promised legislation is the Finance Bill. Or at least No 10 claim it is, because, they argue, by designating it as such the Government hopes to prevent the Lords from blocking it. That’s vital for non-BRINO Brexit because Downing St’s political operation argues, and the Frost-led negotiating team agrees (at least in private), that the UKIMB didn’t go nearly far enough and that – deal or no deal – the UK needs to be able to legally avoid a range of issues. It’s needed to deal with at-risk goods, VAT, and the issue the PM raised of supermarket supply chains – the so-called “sausage war”. Boris Johnson himself cited the fact that the EU could bring into force a food blockade on Northern Ireland as evidence that we needed an Internal Market Bill, but the Finance Bill is needed because – as has been pointed out – the UKIMB doesn’t and can’t solve even that issue.
Even if the idea that the Remainer-dominated House of Lords might somehow risk the hardest of hard Brexits by voting down legislation is highly implausible, clearly there are many sovereignty-based wrinkles to sort out in law, arising from the rushed Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland Protocol so hastily signed a year ago.
The Government have promised the ERG several times that they will introduce the Finance Bill and senior figures within the group have said they will not vote for any deal that does not supersede the Withdrawal Agreement. But the ERG note that the planned budget has been cancelled and a spending review has come and gone without a Finance Bill. ‘The UKIMB is MIA’ quipps an ERG source who also points out that even the UKIMB and the Finance BIll together won’t solve all of their sovereignty concerns.
Which leaves the ERG on the horns of a dilemma. Will they vote against an EU trade deal because it lacks the legislation they say is needed to guarantee sovereignty, or will they trust Boris Johnson when he said even this week that every part of the UK would be leaving the EU at the end of December with full sovereignty intact? To do the former would be to set themselves against their own Prime Minister again, but to believe the latter relies on the Prime Minister’s trustworthiness, and, probably, him breaking the Withdrawal Agreement in the new year. Why, ask some, would he break the agreement then, after it’s already in force, if he’s not prepared to do so now?
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe