What follows is an extended version of an article I wrote for the Guardian on 2 April 2019.
When you break up with someone you love all you can see are the things that are not her. Not her jokes, not her smile, not her taste, and so on. Anyway, the last three years have been a bit like that, constitutionally speaking. The pervading all around is the country that we no longer are – pragmatic, competent, careful, vaguely sensible. All you see is poignancy.
I say this because of – as you do if you’re a lawyer – the Cooper-Letwin Bill. Those same qualities we once associated with the country were their very brand-values. Perhaps a bit boring – perhaps a bit careful – but y’know, competent. But sadly their Bill is everything we and they no longer are. Technically it is the Swiss cheese of legislation – full of holes. And even if you forgive them that it achieves little or nothing of substance. In fact it’s worse – it’s a dangerous distraction from a very real crisis for the country.
Let me explain.
What the Bill wants to do is give Parliament the right to force the Prime Minister to ask for an extension of time and the right to dictate how long an extension she should ask for. That seems like a sensible enough ambition, right? Modest but desirable. And there is an important balance to be found – if you’re trying to force legislation through Parliament in the face of a Government that you assume is hostile and a House struggling to agree on anything – between legislation that is sufficiently modest to attract the support of a majority and sufficiently ambitious as to actually be useful. That’s no easy balance – I know because I’ve tried and failed.
But this Bill gets that balance profoundly wrong. Let me quickly run through some of the criticisms.
The Bill was published today and the idea is that tomorrow the Commons will carve out Parliamentary time for it to pass through the Common and even – if all goes to plan – start its progress though the Commons. Let’s assume, ambitiously, it can clear the House of Commons on Thursday and the House of Lords on Friday and receive Royal Assent the same day.
The first stage mandated by the Bill is that, the day after the Act receives Royal Assent, the Prime Minister must move a motion inviting the PM to seek an extension of time until such date as she wishes (but with which MPs can disagree). Does the Bill envisage Parliament will sit on Saturday or Sunday? We don’t know. Let’s assume the motion is moved on Monday.
If that motion fails the Bill is defunct; that’s it. More damaging would be if it passes.
The Bill is silent as to when the PM has to ask for an extension of time. And if she will not contemplate extending beyond 22 May 2019 but Parliament has forced her to ask for one until 31 December 2019, what then? Could she sit on her hands? In practice she could.
But assume she makes a request the next day, Tuesday. The EU Council is not actually meeting until 10 April 2019. But it might agree to hold an emergency meeting and get back to us on Wednesday: “Yes you can have an extension – but we think you need time to get over your national psychodrama and so we’ll extend until when the transition period would otherwise have extended – 31 December 2020 – and only if you hold European Parliamentary Elections.” What then?
Well, the Bill is completely silent as to what happens if the EU imposes – as it has signalled it would – conditions for such an extension. Inexplicably the Bill makes no arrangements for dealing with that scenario. And even if the EU came back to us without any conditions for an extension – highly unlikely because EU law seems to require that we hold those elections – but just offering an extension to a different date to the one we’d asked for the Bill completely falls apart. All it says is that the PM has to move another motion in which the House again agrees to the Prime Minister seeking an extension of time – which makes no sense at all.
At this stage we’re at Thursday and we leave the EU without a deal on Friday. How on earth – in practice – do we resolve these unanswerables in two days? And what happens if the EU says a flat ‘no’ to an extension – or the conditions are unacceptable to Parliament? What happens in either of those worlds? The Bill maintains a lofty silence.
It’s not uncommon for Parliamentarians to put forward poorly drafted Bills. Legislative drafting is a difficult exercise. But the real problem with this Bill is not that it has some gaping holes in it. The real problem is that it’s a sideshow.
We’ve taken almost three years to fail to decide what we want – how are we going to move forward? If we want a referendum, what is that referendum on – a question that the confirmatory public vote motion turned a blind eye to? If Parliament won’t agree to a withdrawal agreement then the only options left are No Deal and Revoke – who gets to make that decision (a question this alternative to the Cooper-Letwin Bill seeks to answer)?
These are the real questions. The country we once were – and the Parliamentarians they once were – would have faced up to them. But the Cooper Letwin Bill is an awful, awful distraction. I suppose I should find it poignant. But instead, when I think of the consequences for millions of people whose lives will be profoundly damaged by No Deal and who are betrayed by the incompetence of those they trusted, it makes me furious.