It has been reported that the government has ordered all operational planning for a no-deal Brexit to end. According to a leaked email seen by Sky News, the decision was taken at a meeting chaired by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill.
On what basis has this cynical, manipulative and irresponsible decision been taken? For the possibility remains that, whatever the eventual date on which it leaves (if ever), the UK will do so with no deal. The Cabinet doesn’t even seem to have been told that abandoning no-deal preparations was to happen.
Tory MP Crispin Blunt described the move as a “complete betrayal” of the referendum and a “dereliction of duty”. More than that, it speaks to a ruthless abuse of power by the prime minister – and further evidence that the government machine is determined to stop Brexit altogether.
And speaking of abuse of power, you may well be wondering what happened to the procedure by which tonight’s date for leaving the EU is to be postponed to October 31, as agreed by Mrs May at the EU summit this week.
After all, when the date was moved from March 29 to April 12 it had to be done by the (itself legally dubious) device of a statutory instrument (SI), which had to be laid by a particular date and then debated by both houses of parliament.
That procedure didn’t happen this time. The reason is that the Cooper/Letwin bill, which laid down in law June 30 as the extended departure date that it required Mrs May to request from the EU, was used by the government to smuggle in a further piece of constitutional chicanery.
This was to alter the way the SI extending the date still further to October 31 needed to be passed – from a positive resolution, or a motion on the SI debated by the Commons and Lords, to a negative resolution, whereby the SI becomes operative unless MPs pass a resolution within 40 days that the order may not be made.
Negative resolutions are normally used only where the substance of the SI is not controversial. That was clearly not the case with the October 31 extension of the Brexit date. Nevertheless, this change in procedure passed, as a result of a government amendment to the Cooper/Letwin measure, without explicit Commons consent.
On the Lawyers for Britain website, Martin Howe QC explains what happened thus:
The government at first formally opposed the [Cooper/Letwin] Bill on sound constitutional grounds. However, it emerged from the amendments they tabled that their real concern was not to stop the Bill, but to correct some of its inept drafting that could have accidentally stopped the government from agreeing to an Article 50 extension which it wants to agree to.
The government put forward one amendment in the Commons which was rejected, to say that the government could still agree an Article 50 extension outside the framework of the Bill under the prerogative. However that amendment in modified form (hey, presto!) re-emerged under the name of Lord Pannick in the House of Lords, and is now subs.1(6)-(7) of the Act.
The government put forward another amendment in the Commons, which is now section 2 of the Act. This was inexplicably declared carried by the Speaker without a division. It weakens Parliamentary control over changing “exit day” in the 2018 Withdrawal Act by changing the procedure from affirmative resolution of each House to negative resolution.
This piece of further legislative legerdemain was challenged in the Commons by Bill Cash, whose protest that there were “serious question marks over the legality of this” was batted away by the Deputy Speaker who said this was “not a matter on which I can give him an answer from the Chair”.
In any event, both this and the previous SI which moved the Brexit date to April 12 – both of which therefore have committed the UK to continue to pay into the EU — seem to have been in breach of the parliamentary rules that forbid the use of such prerogative powers to raise further public expenditure.
With these and other serial abuses of constitutional and procedural rules, it’s clear that the only way the referendum result will be honoured is by bringing down this whole rotten government edifice.
MPs have been paralysed by the fear that a general election might bring Jeremy Corbyn to power, but we’ve gone past that. The threat of a Corbyn government, dire as that prospect undoubtedly is, cannot be used to allow the UK’s power of independent self-government to be further destroyed. And there will be no Brexit while Mrs May remains in office.
Reports that she intends to make a fourth attempt to get her deal through the Commons are all too credible. The view born of exhaustion that Brexiteers need to support some form of her withdrawal terms in order to achieve Brexit at all is defeatist nonsense. The opinion voiced three times by a majority of MPs that Mrs May’s deal would leave the UK worse off even than now – leaving it under EU control but with zero power to affect EU decisions and trapped into a permanent surrender of the UK’s political integrity and national interest —remains as true now as it was then. It will remain the case that Mrs May’s deal is Brexit-in-name-only-Remain-by-stealth.
The EU has said there’s no possibility of renegotiating the terms of Mrs May’s deal – which still include, let’s not forget, the appalling Northern Ireland “backstop”. A new prime minster wouldn’t change that EU position. Since it was obvious from the get-go that the EU would never, ever agree to any terms that were in the UK’s interests, any attempt by the British government to negotiate the withdrawal is inescapably a form of pre-emptive surrender. The EU has duly acted upon that fact of political life, and always will.
That’s why the only way of delivering Brexit is through leaving with no deal. For that to happen, Mrs May has to be removed from office and replaced by a leader who will not flinch from delivering a no-deal departure.
How, though, to get rid of her? Apparently the 1922 Committee of back-bench Tories has rejected the idea of changing the party rule under which Mrs May can’t be removed by Tory MPs until December, having survived a leadership challenge at the end of last year. “It was agreed that it was against natural justice. It ain’t going to happen,” a senior officer of the committee said.
Natural justice? For goodness sake, we’re not talking here about disciplinary proceedings and punishments. It’s the rule the Tories themselves passed purely for the governance of their own party. If they were entitled to pass it, they are entitled to unpass it.
After all, what if – purely hypothetically – the leader of their party who had survived a leadership challenge proceeded to go clinically insane while still in office? Would these MPs be saying “natural justice” meant they would have to sit on their hands until the year-long bar was lifted? Or would they conclude that the national interest required them to get a new leader immediately?
Of course, in those circumstances they would remove their leader without delay. Yet they are now cementing in place a rogue prime minister who is trashing democracy and the interests of their country – and who also threatens to wipe out their chances of ever being elected to power again.
For just look at how the game is now changing. Today, Nigel Farage launched his Brexit party. In this morning’s Telegraph, he wrote that he now intends nothing less than to put the two-party system out of its misery and change the entire political system which has so betrayed the people.
“Former Tory MP and lifelong Conservative member Michael Brown has become a registered supporter of the Brexit Party. I was also amazed to hear the former Tory minister Ann Widdecombe declare that, having campaigned for the Conservatives at every election since 1970, she would vote for us in the European elections if we have the right candidates. And I hear stories from the House of Lords of cross-bench and Conservative peers saying they, too, will vote for the Brexit Party next month. In the last two weeks, more than 1,000 men and women of high calibre have applied to be on our European candidates’ list. Through our website, we have raised more than £750,000 in small donations over the last 10 days. In 25 years of campaigning, I have never seen such a reaction.”
Even if his Brexit party doesn’t succeed in gaining seats, it will beyond doubt shatter the Conservative party and maybe Labour too. The only way to avoid this is for the UK to have a new prime minister and to leave with no deal. As MPs return to their constituencies for the Easter break, this is what their constituents should be telling them. No ifs or buts – no-deal, or no more you.
Phillips is a British journalist, broadcaster and author - you can follow her
work on her website HERE.
Breaking Views brings you expert commentary on topical political and policy issues. The views expressed are those of the author alone. The blog is administered by the New Zealand Centre for Political Research, an independent public policy think tank at NZCPR.com - register for the free weekly NZCPR newsletterHERE.