Last week we had the first two days of the marathon committee stage of the EU withdrawal Bill, at times it was more than lively, and at others a combination of unrelieved tedium and viciousness. We still have the best part of the 100 hours or so of scrutiny to go.
It is important to remember what the purpose of the bill is, because that purpose occupied little of the debating time.
Its purpose is to provide predictability, continuity and certainty to businesses, Government and individuals by ensuring that our domestic law is the same the day after we leave the EU as it as it will be on the day before we leave.
What has happened however, is that the bill has been hijacked by MPs who want to use it as a vehicle to wrest control of the negotiations with the EU from the Government, and to have Parliament dictate the terms of any agreement itself.
On the face of it this is a not unreasonable thing to demand in a democracy. After all, Parliament is the elected, representative and sovereign body, and the Government is accountable to it.
The problem with this is twofold. First, the one thing Parliament is least fitted for is negotiating a treaty. Binding the hands of the Government in public debate in terms of the sort of agreement that it demands will leave the Government’s position completely exposed and at a huge disadvantage in negotiations with the Commission: If you play high stakes poker you need to conceal your hand, as the EU is doing.
Second, the demand to legislate on the terms and process, and indeed the outcome of the negotiations –which is the thrust of the amendments- is a demand to put off Brexit indefinitely until Parliament gets what it wants, even if that isn’t available. This became explicit during the debate: They will use the provisions with which they seek to amend the bill, in order to prevent Brexit if they do not like the agreement that the Government reaches. They want a veto and they were clear that this means delaying Brexit indefinitely. It is for exactly this reason that they do not want a leaving date in the legislation.
(This strategy is an invitation to the EU to offer less eligible terms, given that the 27 are still canvassing for us to change our minds about the whole thing.)
As far as possible they try and maintain the fiction that they have accepted the will of the people expressed in the referendum result and that their only purpose is to improve the terms on which we will depart. But the mask slips: sometimes quite explicitly in what is said; sometimes in extravagant applause for an unreconstructed ‘remain’ speech.
Their real strategy is to delay the whole process long enough for the public to lose interest or, as they desperately hope, until it changes its mind.
So it comes down to this: do they have the numbers to wreck the Bill?
It’s still too soon to tell.