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12 June 2017

9: Great Repeal Bill – Into the blue again

Following the general election, let’s revisit the anticipated implications for the Great Repeal Bill and the Brexit process in general.

The Conservatives remain the largest party at Westminster, with 317 MPs, nine MPs short of the 326 MPs needed for an outright majority (or five MPs short of the 322 MPs required for a working majority once Sinn Fein’s seven MPs, who do not take their seats, are taken into account).

As the leader of the largest party, it was incumbent on Theresa May to try to form a Government. As predicted, she turned to Northern Ireland’s DUP (the Democratic Unionist Party, probably best known for its founder, Ian Paisley) – who now have ten MPs – for support. The DUP have agreed, in principle, to support the Conservatives in Government (primarily, it seems, to keep Labour, and Jeremy Corbyn in particular, out of No 10). This gives the Government, in effect, 327 MPs on its side.

The weakness of the current arrangement is threefold. First, the poor election result undermines the Prime Minister’s authority as Tory leader – there are strong indications that she will not lead the Tories into another General Election – reducing her ability to enforce party discipline in a Parliament where every Tory MP’s vote is priceless. The grandees may be circling the wagons in public, but private plots are inevitable, and a few dissenting voices on the backbenches could wreak havoc.

Second, the Government hasn’t finalised the details of the deal with the DUP. If the DUP’s support is limited to votes of (no) confidence and supply (ie finance bills) – as is currently suggested – they need not support other Government bills. So quite what will be in the Queen’s Speech (the Government’s programme for the next Parliament) is unclear. Senior Tories are suggesting that the manifesto programme will be ‘pruned’, and the Queen’s Speech (which was scheduled for next Monday) will likely be delayed as a consequence. The Government will be very wary of presenting a Queen’s Speech unless they are absolutely confident they can get it through – if they were defeated on the Queen’s Speech, it would be tantamount to a vote of no confidence, probably leading to another General Election.

Third, some Tory MPs will be less than ecstatic about taking support from the DUP at all. Some, like Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, have expressed concerns about the DUP’s attitude on gay marriage. Others will be concerned about the DUPs links with paramilitary groups, and views on climate change and creationism. Still more will be concerned that the deal at Westminster could jeopardise the future of power sharing in Northern Ireland (as are Labour, Sinn Fein and the incoming Taoiseach Leo Varadkar). The question being legitimately asked is – How can the UK government retain its traditional role of neutral mediator between the NI political parties, if it is reliant on one party to remain in Government? Finally, some Tories may even support another election, trusting in a better manifesto and election campaign (and the real prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister) to deliver a bigger majority.

Turning to Brexit, the support of the DUP will probably have a limited, but real, impact on Government policy. Despite NI voting by a majority to Remain, the DUP are in favour of Brexit. They are against any form of ‘special status’ for NI within the EU – that, they consider, would weaken NI’s constitutional position as part of the UK and would introduce tariffs and barriers between NI and Great Britain – and, like the Tories, they want a ‘comprehensive free trade and customs agreement’ with the EU. However, the DUP also want a ‘frictionless border’ with the Republic of Ireland. Given that, the Government may start to resile from its position that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK’ – ‘no deal’ would not deliver such a border, and so would be unacceptable to the DUP.

Some have sought to interpret the election result as a rejection of a ‘hard’ Brexit, which is generally taken to mean exiting not only the EU, but also the Single Market and the Customs Union. The Government does not share that view. David Davis, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (12 June 2017), retorted that the LibDems and the SNP (who either wanted a softer Brexit or none at all) both saw their vote share reduced. He confirmed the Government’s policy as follows:

‘We’ve made pretty plain what we want to do, it’s outside the single market but with access. It’s outside the customs union but with agreement, it’s taking back control of our laws and borders. Those things are fundamental and we didn’t just pull them out of the air, we spent 10 months devising that strategy’.

So the Conservative’s Brexit policy remains a ‘hard’ Brexit – leaving the single market and customs union, but seeking a new ‘deep and special partnership’ and ‘free trade agreement on the best possible terms’ with the EU. The GRB will therefore remain Conservative policy, and will (we think) be in the Queen’s Speech. The SNP’s calls for a pause to find a UK-wide consensus on Brexit look set to be ignored. The Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner clarified today that Labour’s policy was to leave the Single Market. (Labour’s manifesto had (rather opaquely) stated that it would seek to retain ‘the benefits of the Single Market and Customs Union’).

Given that, we may see the effects of the Government’s reduced majority most clearly in the strength and scope of the GRB provisions granting power to Government to ‘correct’ UK law and ‘give effect to the withdrawal negotiations’ by means of SI. Sweeping powers will prove more difficult to get through Parliament, with the Labour Opposition feeling particularly emboldened to attack the Government on any perceived diminution of individual or workers’ rights. The GRB debates might also have a greater focus on the shape of the new UK ‘internal market’, and on related spheres like agriculture, fisheries and the practicalities of customs and excise. The DUP’s influence might see concessions on the devolution settlements and on Westminster ‘matching’ lost EU regional development funding. The means by which Parliament approves any final Brexit deal may also be up for grabs.

Finally, what if it all went wrong? If the DUP withdrew its support for the Government (and that could be for any reason, not just Brexit), a motion of no confidence in the Government would be passed. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, an alternative government would have to be confirmed within 14 days. Failing that, as seems would be inevitable, a new General Election would be held.

So the smoke clears following the domestic battle of the General Election, and the blue troops stand diminished in number, with their leader among the walking wounded, but victorious thanks to a new, and uneasy, alliance. How long will it last? And what of the international campaign starting next week?

‘And you may ask yourself, how do I work this? … Into the blue again … Same as it ever was, same as it ever was’ (Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime)



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