One year after becoming UK prime minister, Theresa May is braced for political trench warfare over Brexit as she finally unveils the landmark law that will take Britain out of the European Union.
Opposition politicians are plotting to unite with rebels in May’s Conservative Party to rewrite the key piece of legislation that will prepare the UK’s law book for leaving the EU—before she has even published it.
Without an automatic majority in Parliament, May’s minority Tory government is likely to need votes from other parties to pass the so-called repeal bill.
Her team is preparing for months of attritional battles ahead and will seek to make allies with political rivals, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be named discussing internal plans.
“By working together, in the national interest, we can ensure we have a fully functioning legal system on the day we leave the European Union,” Brexit Secretary David Davis said in an e-mail last Thursday, as he appealed to other parties for support. “The eyes of the country are on us, and I will work with anyone to achieve this goal and shape a new future for our country.”
Time is short
A year to the day since she succeeded David Cameron, May and her vision of a clean break with the EU are under attack on two fronts—her critics in London, who are emboldened by her failure to win a majority in last month’s election and want a softer departure—and the EU’s negotiators who are taking a firm line as talks unfold.
Time is also short. The prime minister wants to open talks on a new free-trade deal between the UK and the EU so the future trading relationship is settled by the deadline for talks concluding on March 29, 2019.
Yet, trade discussions will not begin until the EU judges that the UK has made enough progress toward settling the long-term fate of 3.2 million Europeans living in Britain, the payment of a financial settlement to the bloc and the future for the Irish border. Progress so far has been limited in all three areas.
Last Thursday May’s administration will set out the legal mechanism for adjusting British law after Brexit.
The EU (withdrawal) bill, to give the repeal bill its formal title, will end the jurisdiction of EU law in the UK. It will also convert existing European statutes into the British law book when the UK leaves the bloc, a move intended to provide continuity for businesses and to avoid a legislative black hole appearing overnight as Britain exits the EU.
In an interview with The Guardian newspaper on Thursday, Labour’s Brexit Spokesman Keir Starmer said he was putting the government “on notice” that the official opposition party would not support the repeal bill in its current form. It would take only seven lawmakers from May’s Tory party to rebel in order to potentially defeat the government in any vote in the House of Commons.
Starmer demanded changes to the bill in six areas, including the extent of the executive powers the draft law gives May’s ministers to alter legislation without full scrutiny from Parliament. A senior figure in May’s team said this battle would be the most difficult for the government to win.
While the repeal bill itself is likely to pass eventually, long-running clashes over follow-up legislation could bring the whole business of government to a standstill, the person said.
In Brussels, EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier dismissed comments from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson that the EU could “go whistle” for its money if it thought Britain would pay sums said to be as high as €100 billion ($114 billion) as an exit fee. “I am not hearing any whistling, just a clock ticking,” Barnier said.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will meet Barnier in Brussels for detailed talks Thursday.
“Labour respects the referendum result and the decision to leave the European Union,” Corbyn said in an e-mailed statement before the meeting. “But a Labour Brexit would look very different to the race-to-the-bottom tax haven backed by this Conservative Government.”
The government will also publish three “position papers” on Thursday, covering nuclear materials and safeguards issues, ongoing union judicial and administrative proceedings and privileges and immunities.
The papers will be presented to the EU for discussion when formal Brexit negotiations resume in Brussels next week.