The Great Repeal Bill will become the Great Self-Rewriting Bill

The so-called “Great Repeal Bill”—the proposed legislation to transfer all EU law to UK law, and then create mechanisms for it to be progressively amended—has been published and, as many have pointed out (and expected), it represents a stunning power grab in the powers it grants ministers. Section 9, in particular, is deeply disturbing; and to illustrate this I want to suggest a scenario which I do not think is particularly extreme or unlikely.

Clearly, this bill will not pass without substantial opposition scrutiny and amendments. I want you to imagine that the combined forces of the Remainer MPs and those who desire to leave the EU but realize that to do so in the manner we are currently pursuing is suicidal. I want you to imagine that they force an additional provision that requires the final Brexit deal to be put to a referendum—a binding one, this time. I want you to imagine the wholly foreseeable circumstance that another year of plummeting standards of living, increasing prices, and demonstrations of exactly how utterly unprepared even the most ardent Brexiters have been for the process (EURATOM, anyone?) means that, by the time of the expected referendum, public opinion has turned decisively against Brexit.

And then Brexit Minister David Davis decides to invoke section 9. Here are the crucial parts:

9   Implementing the withdrawal agreement

(1) A Minister of the Crown may by regulations make such provision as the Minister considers appropriate for the purposes of implementing the withdrawal agreement if the Minister considers that such provision should be in force on or before exit day.

(2) Regulations under this section may make any provision that could be made by an Act of Parliament (including modifying this Act).

Subsections 9(3) and 9(4) limit the powers: they prohibit the creation of a new criminal offence, changes in taxation, making of retrospective provisions, and changes to application of the Human Rights Act 1998; and they limit the application such that new provisions cannot be made after Brexit day.

Now, it doesn’t have to require a foaming-at-the-mouth reality-denying Brexiter such as Davis to realize that the binding referendum enacted by our additional hypothesized provision would halt Brexit. Davis then, surely, would have a responsibility to issue a new provision, repealing the requirement for a second referendum, or removing the binding nature of it. The bill explicitly allows itself to be modified by arbitrary regulations of a minister, as long as the minister (and only the minister) considers the modification “appropriate for the purposes of implementing the withdrawal agreement.” Indeed, any braking, cautionary, or fail-safe provisions inserted to this bill as it progresses through the houses can, quite simply, be removed by the minister once the bill is passed as long as section 9 remains intact.

And it doesn’t stop there. Let us imagine that Theresa May is still Prime Minister (the most unlikely part of my scenario, I know), and has one of her regular hissy fits in which she threatens to tear up the Human Rights Act when it doesn’t let her do exactly as she wishes—in this instance because she foresees challenges to the withdrawal under it. Let us imagine that she realizes that she will never be able to pass a Finance Act implementing her proposed taxation changes to handle the economic disaster of withdrawal—massive reductions in corporation tax and bundling the consequent cost onto ordinary working people—and so decides to instruct the minister to repeal the Human Rights Act, and amend taxation accordingly. Well she can’t, can she? Subsections 9(3) and 9(4) prohibit this.

But they don’t prohibit the repeal of, um, subsections 9(3) and 9(4). And, once again, the bill explicitly allows itself to be amended.

Andrea Leadsom—she for whom “patriotism” is equivalent to “not questioning the government”—wants to criminalize speaking out against withdrawal? No problem: delete the corresponding restriction and then create the offence. Boris Johnson foresees public uprisings against this arbitrary use of power following withdrawal and wants to get out those unusable water cannon he squandered £320,000 on when Mayor of London? Again: no problem, as long as the removal of the sunset clause is done before Brexit. Cancel the Fixed Term Parliaments Act under the specious claim that the country needs a “stable period” following Brexit of one government lasting, let us say, 10 years? Easy as pie.

Anything the Brexit minister wants, as long as they “consider” it necessary for withdrawal, they can have. This is, quite simply, a recipe for arbitrary and unrestricted rule. Far from Brexit returning power to the people as its proponents banged on interminably about when they weren’t simply lying, it appears Brexit is, quite simply, to be enacted by fiat.

There is a word for this: autocracy.

Tim Farron’s religious folly

I was born and brought up in a country where I knew that, on account of my family’s faith, I was barred by law from marrying the sovereign. Not much more than a theoretical hardship, since until recently the law would anyway prevent me as a man from marrying the heirs to the country’s throne because they happen to be male as well. In any case, by the measure of social progress fawningly used at the time of the marriage of Catherine Middleton and William Windsor, I’m still two generations too close to a coal miner.

Nor has any Catholic ever been Prime Minister of the UK. Up to and including Blair’s flirtation with Rome, there was an assumption that, while not strictly illegal, it might be practically difficult or impossible for a Catholic to fulfill the role, given the office’s involvement in church matters.

On the other hand, I grew up knowing that one of America’s greatest presidents was a Catholic, like me. And whether I was first told at primary school or at home, I knew from an early age that John F. Kennedy had given a great and important speech that had persuaded non-Catholic Americans, including Presbyterian and Jewish Americans, that they could safely vote for him without fearing that he was answerable to Rome; or that his decisions in the Oval Office would be made with Catholic doctrine in mind.

In this context, Tim Farron’s stated reasons for resignation are a massive step backwards. There should be no religious disqualification to political office, and Farron’s is self-imposed. If the illiberalism of his church is more important to him than the liberal instinct he claims always to have had, he should have taken some time for private reflection, and in the public sphere worn his religion much more lightly.

I have some sympathy with what seems likeliest to be his position; that whether or not something is a “sin” is a religious rather than a political question, and that he therefore won’t discuss that as a politician. But in how he has, in fact, chosen to answer and not answer the question (as well as in his earliest votes cast on gay rights issues) he has allowed that private religion into his public role.

But it was by using this as justification for his resignation where he did harm. He has explicitly supported the idea that being religious is incompatible with leading a political party with any claim to liberalism. He has projected his own fundamental illiberalism (or at least, his difficulties reconciling his religious and public life) onto others in public life who have personal faith.

We live in a country which has not yet managed fully to reintegrate the Christian sect that I was born into, where the ruling party courts sectarian trouble by seeking the support of the DUP, and where intolerance of Islam is on the march. This is the context in which Tim Farron seems to have confirmed the worst fears of secularists; he has raised the religious bar an inch or two, at least for those who don’t fit the establishment as cosily as do the “sons of the manse” and the “vicars’ daughters.”

I’m sorry, Brenda, but the only moral thing to do is to have another election

It doesn’t matter that I despise the medieval social views of the Democratic Unionist Party, their creationist and climate-change denialist leanings.

It doesn’t matter that another election would, with any luck, wipe out the Tories and bring in the first truly socialist government of my lifetime.

Were Arlene Foster the fluffiest of bleeding-heart liberals, were the Tories committed to the redistribution of wealth and social welfare, I would still hold a new election necessary. Should the Queen’s speech not pass and Jeremy Corbyn thus have an opportunity to form a government then he, too, would be beholden to refuse and precipitate another election.

The simple arithmetic of the make-up of the House of Commons as it stands is that neither of the main parties can form a working majority without the support of the DUP, and this cannot stand. The Good Friday Agreement—which we are now so accustomed to that we forget quite what an extraordinary achievement it was—is predicated upon the Westminster government acting as a neutral broker ensuring effective power-sharing in the devolved government of Northern Ireland. It is blindingly obvious that dependency upon sectarian votes in any way compromises this.

No government should be formed in Westminster that is reliant—whether through formal coalition or looser agreements—upon the votes of any of the sectarian Northern Irish parties for its majority. It so happens that the only such party that both has seats and the intention to take them up is the DUP; but I would hold this position for the SDLP, the UUP, Sinn Féin (were they to take up their seats), excepting only the non-sectarian Alliance party.

Any kind of dependence in Westminster upon sectarian votes imperils the peace process—which is still a process, not an established fact—in Northern Ireland. The irresponsibility—to put it mildly—of the Tories in even entering talks with the DUP would be breath-taking were they not already, clearly, lacking a moral compass of any kind. Theresa May is attempting to cling on to power at the risk of imperilling twenty years of progress towards peace.

This is bigger than austerity; this is bigger than socialism. This is way beyond party politics, Brexit, or the extreme annoyance and waste of public funds that yet another election would be.

On Saturday I will be protesting this coalition in London. I urge you to do the same, or to write to your MP (especially if they are a Conservative) urging them to vote down the Queen’s Speech, and to do the same should Corbyn attempt to pass one.