“Henry VIII powers” are just Remainer tosh

“Henry VIII powers” are just Remainer tosh

The Brexit starting gun went off with a bang last month when the Prime Minister triggered Article 50, signalling the beginning of the two-year process to leave the EU. What’s next? Well, the next 24 months are where the negotiating rubber hits the road, with plenty of summits, threats, entreaties, conspiracies, posturing and flouncing to keep the headline writers busy.

And, in parallel with the talks, there will be a ‘Great Repeal Bill’, which is a rather silly name because most of us won’t notice very many differences once it is passed at all.

Constitutionally, it is tremendously important because it scraps the European Communities Act 1972 which made EU laws and judges superior to British ones. Repealing it puts us fully in control of our own destiny for the first time in 40 years.

But if you put the technicalities aside for a second, it ought really to be called the Great Continuity Bill instead, because it will convert all the EU laws into UK legislation. Although it might seem weird (what’s the point of leaving if we’re keeping all the same rules, after all?) it means everything carries on as normal on the day after we leave, so businesses and consumers know exactly where they stand: no cliff-edges, or black holes; just boringly–reassuring predictability, normality and certainty.

It is only after that, once EU laws have become UK ones, that the fun starts. Because then our Parliament can decide for itself whether it wants to change or scrap each and every EU law. It creates a huge opportunity; a moment when we can think more deeply about some pretty fundamental issues affecting the UK’s future, which we haven’t needed or been able to think about for the 40 years we’ve spent under the EU’s umbrella.

We should be genuinely radical as we forge this brave new post-Brexit Britain. How about the ‘Agriculture after we’ve left the Common Agricultural Policy Bill’? Or the ‘Fisheries after we’ve left the Common Fisheries Policy Bill’? Or the ‘Immigration and work permits after free movement stops Bill’? This is a once-in-a-generation chance to leave a mark for our grandchildren; to set the framework of a new and better Britain; to define the structures and social settlement of our country for decades to come. The post-war Attlee government did it, setting up the NHS and the welfare state, and we can do the same in our time now.

A few areas won’t change much, of course. There’s strong cross-party agreement that workers’ rights and protections shouldn’t be touched, for example, and nor should environmental standards for things like clean water, safe food and breathable air either. But the way they’re delivered might alter, if we can get the same results without all that Brussels form-filling and red tape.  

But otherwise, now is not the time to be timid. Some Brexit deniers want to slam on the brakes and make progress almost impossible, claiming the Great Repeal Bill will give the Prime Minister ‘Henry VIII powers’, like a medieval monarch. Fortunately, BrexitCentral readers, I’m sure you will be delighted to hear that – as a former Constitution Minister – I can exclusively reveal that this is tosh.

Both David Davis and the Prime Minister have promised that all the serious changes will only happen through full-scale Acts of Parliament. It’s only the large number of tediously necessary minor alterations, like making sure we’ve switched the powers of every single European regulator or bureaucratic agency across to their British equivalents in time for the first day of Brexit, that will be dealt with in long, long lists of uncontroversial Parliamentary nod-throughs. Even then, in theory anyone can object to each and every single one if they want to. But no-one ever does, because everyone agrees they’re sensible and if Parliament was to be required to debate every single one, it would take up over 200 days of 24/7 parliamentary time!

So no Henry VIII powers, but some highly-democratic and very radical changes on the way. Whether all those EU laws delight or frustrate you, hold on to your hat; the next few years are going to be quite a ride!