Johnson’s government has altered this vital piece of Brexit legislationby Maddy Thimont Jack / December 23, 2019 / Leave a comment
2019 was dominated by a battle between the government and parliament over whether, and when, and how, the UK was going to leave the EU. The numbers in parliament forced Theresa May to compromise—trying to appease her own backbenchers, the DUP and some Labour MPs. Her strategy ultimately failed. But Boris Johnson’s election result means that 2020 will look very different. This is encapsulated in the changes he made to the latest version of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill—the domestic legislation needed to implement the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU and allow the government to ratify the treaty.
While Johnson succeeded in passing the second reading of his Withdrawal Agreement Bill on 22nd October, he had to make a number of concessions to gather enough support, particularly from Labour MPs. With a working majority of 87 (and 109 new Conservative MPs) he no longer needs to get Labour waverers on board.
As a consequence, the government has removed the provisions relating to workers’ rights. Although the original provisions were very limited (not actually preventing the government from acting in any way, since parliament can always repeal or amend earlier legislation), they were designed to persuade Labour MPs from Leave-voting constituencies that the government was not planning to water down these protections in UK law. Johnson believes this is no longer necessary.
The government has also amended another important piece of Brexit legislation, the EU Withdrawal Act 2018, to water down the obligation to pursue an agreement on unaccompanied children seeking asylum to unite with family members. With a majority, Johnson has been able to erase some of the concessions May was forced to make when passing that legislation.
The government has also made a lot of noise on extension to the transition period, including a potential commitment to rule out extension beyond December 2020 in UK law. The language around “agreement” rather than “request” means that even if the EU were to ask for an extension, UK law would require the government to say no. But this is mainly domestic posturing. The government could always repeal this provision if necessary. And even if a number of its own backbenchers opposed the move, the government could probably rely on opposition MPs who won’t want to leave the EU without a future relationship agreed.
The biggest change to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is the removal of the clause setting out a role for parliament in the next phase of negotiations. In the October version of the bill, MPs would have had a vote to approve the negotiating objectives and a vote to approve the final treaty (or treaties) before ratification. The government would also have been required to update parliament every three months on the progress of negotiations.
All of these provisions have been removed from the latest version of the WAB. The proposal to legislate for how parliament will be involved in the next phase came from Gareth Snell and Lisa Nandy—two Labour MPs—as parliament currently has a very limited role in international treaty negotiations. With a large majority, Johnson no longer needs to appease anyone on the opposition benches. It likely is also a response to May’s experience; Johnson will want to ensure that he won’t be blocked by parliament in the way she was.
But parliamentary scrutiny is important—holding government to account and ensuring better decisions are made. The future relationship is intended to cover a broad range of areas; engaging with parliament properly allows MPs to raise the concerns of their constituents and forces the government to defend the decisions—and trade-offs—ministers have made. It can also be a useful tool in negotiations. While the EU can use the interests of the European Parliament and 27 member states to avoid making concessions, Johnson won’t be able to point to the challenge of getting a deal through the UK parliament when discussing key British interests in areas like fishing access.
Of course the government can still choose to engage with MPs—for example, giving regular updates—without legislating for it. But removing these provisions in the WAB means that parliament will take much more of a backseat in 2020.