Theresa May’s government is seeking to grant itself Henry VIII powers to create legislation without parliamentary scrutiny. In a late night debate on Monday 11 September, a majority of MPs voted in favour of the Bill that will grant those powers.
The EU Withdrawal Bill
In 1539, wife-murdering despot King Henry VIII granted himself the power to declare new laws by proclamation. And this week, the May government is demanding similar powers. The EU Withdrawal Bill will grant it permission to pick and choose which EU Laws it adds to the UK statute, which it disregards, and what it puts in their place – all without parliamentary approval.
Brexit Secretary David Davis summed up the government’s argument ahead of Monday night’s debate:
A vote against this Bill is a vote for a chaotic exit from the European Union.
Providing certainty and stability in the lead up to our withdrawal is a key priority.
But MPs on all sides of the House felt the bill was anti-democratic, and a naked power grab by the minority government. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told ITV‘s Robert Peston:
We’re not going to sit there and hand over powers to this government to override parliament, override democracy and just set down a series of diktats on what’s going to happen in the future.
I don’t think the record of Henry VIII on promoting democracy, inclusion and participation was a very good one. He was all about essentially dictatorial powers to bypass what was then a very limited parliamentary power.
We need total accountability, at every stage of this whole Brexit negotiation.
SNP MPs also raised serious concerns that the bill would violate rules on Scottish powers made during devolution. And parliamentarians were joined by more than 70 charities, NGOs and trade unions that created a formal alliance – coordinated by Unlock Democracy – to oppose the bill.
By the night of the debate, the Conservative rebels had yielded. While several of them made defiant pronouncements on the bill, one even calling it an “astonishing monstrosity” – not one of them voted against it. Labour MP David Lammy pointed this out. Focusing on vocal Conservative MP for Broxtowe Anna Soubry, he said:
Her bark has been loud, particularly on the Today programme, but her actions have been far less in these days that have followed those contributions.
The bill even moved anti-Corbyn MPs such as Stephen Kinnock to unite in opposition. The MP for Aberavon spoke out against a bill that “seeks to strip Parliament of its sovereign power” and “create a Cabinet of kings”. He went on:
Let us make no mistake, this bill is not about delivering the will of people, rather it’s about gagging our democracy and this House by the way of a false discourse. It is a silent coup d’etat, masquerading as technical necessity.
But a handful of Labour MPs defied the whip to support the Conservatives; Frank Field, Ronnie Campbell, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, John Mann, Dennis Skinner and Graham Stringer voted in favour of the bill. And Caroline Flint and 13 others abstained.
The rebels came from two camps. MPs from pro-Brexit constituencies voted in favour to avoid the perception of being ‘Brexit betrayers’. And those who remain staunchly opposed to Corbyn’s leadership of the party accepted the opportunity to undermine it. In some cases, both factors were at play.
The government won with a majority of 36 votes (326 votes to 290).
The PM responded positively to the news, calling it a “historic decision to back the will of the British people”. A strange turn of phrase for a bill with the sole purpose of removing democratic scrutiny from her government. Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer described it as “a deeply disappointing result”, and criticised MPs for backing “an affront to parliamentary democracy and a naked power grab”:
For those who don't obsess over legislation, the #EUwithdrawalbill is akin to Tories replacing hundreds of judges with themselves
— Will Black (@WillBlackWriter) September 11, 2017
"Make Parliament sovereign!" screamed the Brexit MPs who are now voting to make ministers sovereign instead of Parliament.#EUwithdrawalbill
— David Schneider (@davidschneider) September 11, 2017
#EUwithdrawalbill passing first hurdle is horrifying. Tory power grab shows total disregard for democracy and why they're not fit for govt.
— Shehab Khan (@ShehabKhan) September 11, 2017
But MPs and activists alike still have time to kill the bill. The draft legislation now moves to the committee stage, where MPs will seek to add amendments. It will then return to the House of Commons for the next vote. This gives MPs a chance to neuter the bill’s powers, or mount a more successful attempt to stop it altogether. It also grants ordinary citizens the chance to lobby their own MPs to unite against the bill. If not, May will have found a way to erase the impact of the 2017 general election. Instead of being hamstrung by her minority government, she will be free to implement her policies by decree.
– Whether your MP voted for or against the legislation, get in touch with them and make your views known.
Featured image via YouTube Screengrab