Neither my school nor sixth form college ever did an end-of-term “muck-up day”, but we’ve all heard the stories: farm animals let loose in corridors, creatively applied weed-killer on the playing field, dead fish behind the radiators. As Westminster broke up for its summer recess yesterday, Dominic Raab pulled off the political equivalent of the latter – and seemingly without realising.
Unveiling the government’s white paper on the Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill – the mechanism by which the final deal with Brussels, if it ever materialises, will become law – the Brexit Secretary made an announcement that could yet amount to signing Theresa May’s political death warrant.
Raab confirmed that the 1972 European Communities Act, the legislation that keeps UK under Brussels’ jurisdiction, will not be fully repealed on exit day as promised by ministers and the EU Withdrawal Act, but will instead continue to have effect until the end of the transition period in 2020.
The legal consequences are embarrassing: the Withdrawal Act, the government’s flagship piece of Brexit legislation, will have to be amended before it even takes effect. The political consequences, however, could potentially be lethal. Repeal of the 1972 Act is a totemic, existential issue for Tory Brexiteers and particularly their fundamentalist wing (Bill Cash, the veteran paleosceptic, has mentioned the law and demanded its repeal a total of 63 times in the Commons since the EU referendum).
Raab manfully insisted that only “parts” of the legislation would continue to apply after 29 March next year but might as well have been playing second violin on the deck of the Titanic. Backbench Leavers have not bought his limp attempt at reassurance one bit. The government’s entirely unnecessary decision to enshrine 29 March in the Withdrawal Act as the legally immovable Brexit day meant keeping some provisions of the 1972 Act in force thereafter was inevitable (“This was always going to be a spewing moment for Brexiteers,” says a European Research Group source).
That wounding compromise would have been worth it for the sake of the sort of Brexit that David Davis wanted (and even then the hardliners would have had much to dislike). May and Raab’s problem now, however, is that they are asking Leavers to humiliate themselves twice over: to surrender over exit day for the sake of a Brexit that most of them feel isn’t a Brexit at all.
It barely needs saying that the ERG will not obligingly roll over here. But what will they do instead? For the answer, look to Steve Baker, the former DexEU minister who doubles as their quartermaster. Responding to news of the extension of the 1972 Act, Baker said it was the “least-worst of the negotiable ways to deliver the IP [implementation period]”. But he added: “The big question is whether this huge compromise will be accepted by Parliament if the end state is Chequers…”
Here Baker is posing a question to which he already knows the answer: no. That ministers are pushing ahead with the Chequers plan regardless, says an ERG source, confirms the fact their regime has turned “proper zombie”.
But how would they kill this zombie? The most obvious ways would be to force a motion of no confidence in the prime minister, or vote against the government in the first of the two no confidence votes provided for by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Should it come down to it, enough backbenchers are likely willing to do either, or both.
“I think if Theresa May persists with the Chequers deal to the autumn,” Baker told me last week, “every member of parliament will face profoundly difficult choices.” For the handful of Eurosceptics needed to derail the whole exercise, however, that choice will be very easy – and Raab’s announcement yesterday made it easier still.
It is the worst parting gift they could give the awkward squad before the summer holidays. Just as with the fish behind the classroom radiator or dead rat in the ceiling cavity, the stench of decay is about to set in. As summer progresses, it will get worse and worse as backbenchers foment revolt. Come May’s return to parliament, the atmosphere will be unbearable.
Much has been made of the government making it to recess intact, but the choices it has made means surviving autumn unscathed will be a challenge that could very well prove insurmountable.