Both Brexit supporters and former Remainers criticised the drafting © FT Montage/Dreamstime
MPs have clashed as a parliamentary debate began over the UK government’s demands for sweeping, “autocratic” powers to enact Brexit.
Theresa May’s Conservatives are widely expected to win votes on the second reading of the repeal bill, to be held late on Monday night.
But both Brexit supporters and former Remainers criticised the drafting, suggesting that the government may have to compromise in order to pass the bill, which embeds EU law in British law to ensure continuity after Brexit.
Perhaps the most noteworthy intervention came from Edward Leigh, a Conservative backbencher, who said that Leavers like him should show “magnanimity” in order to “improve the whole atmosphere” around Brexit.
Sir Edward said the government should be “as generous as possible” with parliament, giving more time to MPs to debate the bill and imposing time limits on proposed executive powers. He also broke ranks with fellow Brexiters by arguing that Britain should pay a hefty divorce bill to the EU.
“The important thing is that we are leaving, but I don’t see why we shouldn’t be generous with a financial settlement . . . I don’t see why we shouldn’t assist them with some of their spending plans till 2021,” he said. In contrast Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, said recently the EU could “go whistle” for a divorce bill.
The repeal bill, officially titled the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, grants the government wide powers to adapt EU laws, and to make other preparations for Brexit. Under its proposals, the government could authorise a withdrawal agreement — including the payment of an exit bill to the EU, and the establishment of customs checks on the Irish border — without full parliamentary scrutiny. The provisions would be made via statutory instruments, requiring only simple up/down votes from MPs and the House of Lords.
“These are clauses that Erdogan, Maduro and Putin would be proud of . . . We know this is an autocratic process,” said Chris Bryant, the Labour MP, noting that few statutory instruments had been rejected by parliament in recent years.
Another Labour MP, Wayne David, said that the bill was the “wrong way for Britain to leave the European Union”.
Pro-EU Conservatives including Dominic Grieve and Ken Clarke said last week that they would vote for the bill at this stage, but could vote against its third reading later this year, if the government were not to make substantial changes.
The Conservative chair of the justice committee, Bob Neill, joined them on Monday, saying that the proposed executive powers “go beyond that which is acceptable or necessary”.
The government has a working majority of 13, but it can count on the support of some Labour MPs. Kevin Barron, the Labour MP for Rother Valley, said he would abstain on the second reading, because he had promised his constituents not to block or delay any Brexit legislation.
MPs will also vote on a Labour amendment that calls for greater parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit, and includes a presumption that repatriated powers will be devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The amendment also implies that Britain should adopt the EU charter of fundamental rights, and commit to keeping pace with future changes in EU workers rights and environmental protections.