Theresa May warned by opposition over EU withdrawal Bill

‘This debate is not just a quagmire for the government, it is also a political nightmare’

 British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn presents an Arsenal football jersey to EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photograph:   Olivier Hoslet/Getty Images

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn presents an Arsenal football jersey to EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/Getty Images

 

Opposition parties have warned Theresa May that she faces “hell” at Westminster over a Bill to legislate for the end of Britain’s membership of the European Union. The European Union (withdrawal) Bill is the second major legislative step on the path to Brexit after the triggering of article 50 last March.

It repeals the European Communities Act which brought Britain into the Common Market in 1973 and transposes all EU laws into British law. But Labour has said it will oppose the Bill and Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said the government faced a parliamentary version of guerrilla warfare reminiscent of the days of the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s.

“This debate is not just a quagmire for the government, it is also a political nightmare that could end Theresa May’s premiership. This Bill might keep a few restless people on the Tory backbenches from looking around for her replacement for a couple of months, but it has all the hallmarks of someone in office but not in power,” he said.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have identified the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights as a red-line issue. The Bill says the charter will no longer apply to Britain after Brexit, although the government argues that all of the rights identified in the charter will be retained so its abolition is unlikely to have much practical impact.

‘Henry VIII powers’

Labour also objects to sweeping new powers the Bill gives to government to modify EU laws as they are transposed into British law, using statutory instruments subject to little parliamentary scrutiny. The government says it will use the powers, known as Henry VIII powers, sparingly and only where changes are needed so that the laws will make sense after Brexit.

The government has said it will seek legislative consent from the devolved assemblies for the Bill, although the supreme court has ruled that the devolved administrations cannot veto the legislation. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and her Welsh counterpart, Carwyn Jones, both criticised the Bill on Thursday because it will repatriate powers from Brussels to Westminster before deciding if in some policy areas they should be devolved.

Ms Sturgeon dismissed the Bill as a “naked power grab” and Mr Jones described its publication as a moment of significant challenge to the devolution settlement.

“Indeed, in our view, it represents the most significant attack on devolution since the creation of the National Assembly in 1999,” he said.

“It is an attempt to take back control over devolved policies such as the environment, agriculture and fisheries not just from Brussels, but from Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast.”

Exit costs

Earlier, Ms Sturgeon told the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, that Scotland would seek to keep Britain inside the single market after Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn also met Mr Barnier in Brussels on Thursday, promising that a Labour government would pay the EU “what it legally owed” as Britain leaves the EU.

Mr Corbyn, who gave Mr Barnier an Arsenal shirt and a copy of his manifesto, said Labour would guarantee rights of all EU citizens to remain in Britain with rights of family reunion.

“Labour has extended the hand of partnership for a new relationship with Europe and we outlined how our goal of a jobs-first Brexit deal would protect our mutual trading interests,” the Labour leader said after the meeting.

“We set out Labour’s Brexit priorities in contrast to the race-to-the-bottom tax haven threatened by the Conservatives. The general election result has clearly changed the context for the Brexit talks and means the government will have to listen to parliament and will not be able to have it all its own way.”