The Cooper-Letwin Bill (extended edition)

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.



3 thoughts on “The Cooper-Letwin Bill (extended edition)

  1. For once, I am pretty much in entire agreement. As soon as the PM agreed to the EU agenda, she lost the initiative and has been rolled up like a carpet by the EU.

    What should have happened is that we should have spent the time sorting out trade as well as the other stuff. Obviously, a trade deal is far better than WTO, but very simply, once we are out of the whole EU circus, border formalities will ensue. This is unavoidable, so the thrust should have been sorting out these issues.

    If the EU had refused to talk, May should have walked out, given them a deadline to get sensible or face us leaving on WTO terms.

    When Trump got upset with EU and thumped the table, Juncker was over there that week and everything was sorted out in short order.

    Theresa May was a useless Home Secretary and has been a calamitous PM. The result is that the nation is wrapped up in a Gordian Knot.

    This is why a nation needs a leader. In modern history, we have had two. Churchill and Thatcher. Both had clarity of vision and thought. Both told it like it was. Both got things done. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. All I can say is that said man is extremely well hidden at the moment.

  2. Thank you for pointing out the problems with this Bill. Our Parliament is reflecting the rest of us: emotion is getting the better of reason. When Henry VIII divorced from Rome, it set up hundreds of years of division between Catholics and Protestants. I hope Leavers and Remainers will find the path back to tolerance and good sense more quickly.

  3. How tolerant and rational do you expect someone, who voted Remain in 2016, to be should they lose their job, their home, their business etc, because of BREXIT?

    Do you expect them to take their misfortune on the chin rather than look for someone to blame, instead?

    BREXIT has hurt people since 2016, is hurting people today and there is no BREXIT deal that will not involve further pain and misery in the years to come, much of it to be heaped the poorest in our society.

    Let me give you one example, hidden in plain sight, of the anguish already being experienced by those too often ignored by the politically engaged, except when wanting to score a debating point.

    The benefits freeze, initiated by the Conservatives in April 2015, remains in place, today.

    Labour, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s claims to be the champion of the poor, the sick and the needy, took his party into 2017’s General Election saying his Government would not be able to afford to end the benefits freeze, if ever.

    What does that mean in pounds, shillings and pence?

    That, for example, the core, basic weekly rate of Income Support for a lone parent, aged 25 and over, was £73.10 in April 2015, is £73.10 today and will be for the foreseeable future, regardless of which of the two main parties is in power.

    In 2017, food prices alone rose by a weighted average of 4% over the calendar year, partly due to BREXIT.

    The core, basic weekly rate of Income Support for a lone parent, aged 25 and over, was £73.10 on 1st January 2017 and remained £73.10 on 31st December 2017.

    You “hope Leavers and Remainers will find the path back to tolerance and good sense”, because there are only two groups in contention?

    Which is, admittedly, one up on the idea that only the views and votes of those who voted Leave in 2016 matter in 2019.

    But even the (Un)English (Un)Civil War(s) had three main groups.

    The benefits freeze, today, hits those who voted Remain in 2016, those who voted Leave in 2016, those who did not vote in 2016 and those ineligible to vote in 2016.

    How tolerant and rational do you expect someone to be, who voted Leave in 2016, believing all the lies about a brighter, better future on BREXIT, when they lose their jobs, their homes, their businesses? Bearing in mind that some already have?

    Leave got over the line in 2016 partly by peddling simple messages.

    For example, the EU is responsible for much of the failings of our society and economy.

    There is a bitter irony that when redundancies are announced today, say in the car industry, that Leave campaigners, in an effort to deflect attention from BREXIT, ask voters to consider all the factors behind such job losses.

    Alas for Leave supporters, it is a lot easier for folk to put car plant closures solely down to BREXIT rather than a range of reasons of which BREXIT is one (and may be not even the over riding one).

    It is a single sentence of explanation as opposed to a paragraph or two of factors explained and weighted.

    This is not over by a long chalk and there is more than one cleavage that has opened up since September 2015.

    Jeremy Corbyn is a champion of the middle class as much as he anything else. He pledged his Labour Government on its first day in office to find £10 billion plus to enact universal ‘free’ university tuition for mostly white, mostly middle and upper class youth.

    For the few not the many of 18 to 21 year olds.

    Interestingly, Change UK wants to see the benefits freeze ended and a new method of annually upgrading benefits formulated rather than a reversion to one based on CPI or RPI.

    And the party wants to address the issue of student tuition fees without the application of Labour’s bludgeon of a policy that, if put in place, would actually reduce participation in higher education amongst those drawn from low income backgrounds.

    We need to find a new path and not one that takes us back to how things were on the day before the referendum in 2016.

    We might, perhaps, start with asking how the declining will of a minority of voters in 2019, who voted Leave in 2016, trumps the happiness of all of the people in 2019?

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