Countdown to Brexit: 12 days – Cracks appear in political, constitutional and practical transition to a post-Brexit UK through lack of a clear Government strategy and execution

The media focus last week was on the second Brexit ‘meaningful vote’ – and the rejection of Mrs May's Withdrawal Agreement by MPs for a second time.  Second time a majority of 149 votes – whereas first time around the defeat was a majority of 230 votes.  So around 40 MPs changed their vote.  The numbers mean that a further 76 MPs will need to change their vote in a third ‘meaningful vote’ before the European Council meeting on Thursday 21 March.

Tuesday’s defeat led to consequential votes on Wednesday and Thursday.  Neither of these votes were not legally binding and the Law setting the date of Brexit as 29 March 2019.

As we go into another week of short-term reactions to unplanned and unpredictable events – we step back from the internal political struggles.  There is a scary bigger picture on the most important constitutional shift for the UK in modern times.

Right now, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, 2018 is the Law and – unless amended by Parliament - the UK is still set to leave on 29 March - with or without a deal.  And should Mrs May request an extension – a delay is dependent on the unanimous agreement of 27 remaining EU countries to agree to a delay.

Whatever the outcome in less than two weeks’ time – a United Kingdom outside the EU will have to manage two parallel sets of negotiations: trade deals and Treaties with the WTO and countries from around the World; and a total set of new relationships with the European Union.

This is fundamental to the Prime Minister’s deal which is made up in two parts – the Withdrawal Agreement - and the framework for the future relationship ‘Political Declaration’.  The Withdrawal Agreement is the easy bit.

We have previously reported on how ill-prepared the UK is to deal with negotiations – largely a skill that we lost to the EU who have led such negotiations for the last 40 years.

We will report on how the Political Declaration negotiations might play out – given that – forgetting the Northern Ireland backstop that has become the notional stumbling block – the EU has come of the ‘deal’ with the stronger hand in all future negotiations.

The badly thought through Tariff table - published on Thursday - is an illustration of a Government that is in reactive mode - and not a team that is executing a carefully thought-out strategy to the benefit of the UK, its businesses and citizens.

The contingency preparations of the required legal structure in the UK for a no-deal Brexit are running so late – with legal structures nowhere near ready for 29 March – and the true reason that the Prime Minister needs an additional 3 months to prepare to leave – with or without a deal.

The list of – mostly – badly-presented ‘no-deal’ guidelines hastily posted on the Gov.UK website are not helpful to business or citizens in the preparations.  There are over a 100 individual documents – and good luck to anyone navigating them and figuring out which ones are relevant to their particular circumstances – reading, digesting, and attempting to develop a strategy to cope with the changes.

The practical and organisational changes – such as ferry operations, transport licensing, and EU citizens rights to remain – to mention a couple of the hundreds of impacts and responses that we have been tracking – are poorly thought through and do not inspire confidence in the country’s ability to stand alone.

We have also reported on the risks to the union of the kingdom from the way that devolved assemblies and territories have been shut out of the discussions – let alone being part of a consensus across the UK on how to go forward.  From Gibraltar to Guernsey; from the Caribbean via the Falklands to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – there is growing unrest with Westminster and its disregard for them that could result in an unplanned and ‘accidental’ break-up of the union.

A stark illustration of both the lack of know-how and lack of any ability to work in a strategic manner came in a just-published published Parliamentary document.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights report on ‘Human Rights Protections in International Agreements’.  They conclude that a new approach is needed if the UK is to ensure high human rights standards in all international agreements made post-Brexit.

The report concludes that the current system - which is meant to ensure that Parliament has proper information about the human rights implications of proposed agreements - is “not working.”

The Committee were concerned to note – for instance - that the Minister for Human Rights did not know what human rights protections were - or were not - in the UK-Israel Agreement - announced by the Department for International Trade on 18 February – the day that the Minister gave evidence in front of the Committee.

Chair of the Committee, Harriet Harman MP, is clear that Human Rights should not be an ‘add-on’ to any international trade agreement or treaty.  She said that: “We were extremely concerned to hear that human rights are not part of the conversation when it comes to the bi-lateral free trade deals currently being negotiated by the Government.”

The Committee points out that Parliament has not received adequate or timely information from Government about the potential human rights implications of any international agreements being negotiated - or to those subject to Parliamentary scrutiny under the ‘Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, 2010 – known as ‘CRaG’.

As a stand-alone country negotiating with the World – a better approach to international agreements is needed so that the UK maintains its status as a “champion of human rights”.

The report proposes:

Standard human rights protections should be included in all agreements;

The Government must ensure that human rights expertise is embedded into the negotiating teams working on all international agreements;

The Government must provide the UK Parliament’s Human Rights Committee a human rights memorandum for all proposed international Agreements once there is a draft text;

The Government must inform Parliament of all international agreements that it intends to negotiate and regularly report back to the Committee on implementation so human rights standards can be monitored;

Parliament’s role must be strengthened in scrutinising these agreements to ensure high human rights standards.

It is an indictment that the Government had not understood, prioritised, set and delivered a strategy – without needing to have this pointed out by so many Committees. How can it be that Committees are widely raising concerns that Ministers are not aware of the facts and details of their remit as they approach negotiations for post-Brexit agreements.

Back to our illustration, the Human Rights Committee has also proposed a change to Parliamentary rules (known as Standing Orders) so that the Committee’s remit widens as the UK becomes a stand-alone country - rather than a member of the EU.  In this case to cover "human rights relating to the UK's international obligations" as well as "human rights in the UK".

They fear that the UK Government will become the weak link for when making international agreements as we prepare to leave the European Union.  Parliamentary Committees must be given the remit to “check and challenge these agreements.”

The Government briefing just published opens by stating that “it is unclear when and on what terms the UK will exit the EU.”

The Chancellor, Philip Hammond MP summed it up , speaking on BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday 17 March: “we have given the civil service a difficult task of preparing for Brexit”, – He was referring to the shifting nature and uncertainty within the Government’s Brexit process.

 References:

human-rights-protections-international-agreements-report-published-17-19/

withdrawal-agreement-key-questions-report-published-17-19/

scotland-trade-brexit-report-published-17-19/

uk-no-deal-terms-of-trade-are-published-as-a-contingency

John ShuttleworthComment