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14 July 2017

Theresa May needs to show humility – but the EU Withdrawal Bill has none

It would have been a big ask even with the government's pre-election majority.

By Stephen Bush

New year, new Theresa May? The Prime Minister has marked her first year in power with a speech reflecting on the “new reality” of her diminished parliamentary power, and by telling Emma Barnett on BBC Radio 5 Live that she shed “a little tear” when she saw the exit poll predicting she had lost her Commons majority.

In a reflection of the new need for humility, the Great Repeal Bill is out and the more modest-sounding EU Withdrawal Bill is in.

But the new mood of humility doesn’t seem to extend beyond the Bill’s first page. From the expansion of the powers held as reserved by Westminster, to an erosion of fundamental rights for British citizens – including the laws that allowed John Walker, the retired chemical engineer, to successfully sue for his male spouse to have the same rights to his pension as a woman would – to the sweeping powers it gives the government to alter not only laws but the withdrawal agreement without parliamentary consent, this Bill would have been a big ask even with the government’s pre-election majority. (Don’t forget, this was bigger than it looked because the DUP was already on-side on Brexit issues).

“We’ll block Brexit laws, warn Scots and Welsh” is the Times’ splash, while “Scotland and Wales threaten to deny consent for EU Bill” is the Scotsman‘s. “Revolt over Repeal Bill ‘power grab” is the i‘s take, while that word “power grab” is on the front page of the Guardian too: “PM’s EU repeal bill dismissed as ‘power grab’” is their take.

It doesn’t seem as if Theresa May has really adjusted to the “new reality” just yet. The bill as it stands looks like the political equivalent of suicide by cop. And it’s not the only unnecessary fight she’s picking. The opposition parties are already riled by the government’s refusal to grant them enough opposition day debates.

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This should be win-win for the government: the more opposition day debates, the fewer days in which they have to find something, anything, to fill the time with. (And while Labour has a vested interest in throwing a strop to get another election as soon as possible, don’t forget that the other opposition parties do not – the Greens are suffering from a fall-off in the amount of short money they receive, the SNP fear that Jeremy Corbyn will take a bumper crop of seats from them next time, and Tim Farron hasn’t regenerated into Vince Cable yet.)

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A lot went wrong for the Conservatives for a lot of reasons, but one of them was May’s unnecessary bellicosity. That wasn’t a great trait in a PM with a small majority – it’s an even worse one in a PM with no majority at all.