“The Lords’ powers of revision and delay will, in turn, empower the large majority of MPs in the House of Commons who oppose Brexit but now feel obliged to abide by the referendum”
The real news in May’s speech was not the March date, which was widely expected, but her announcement of a “Great Repeal Bill” to be pushed through the 2017-18 session of parliament which begins next May. This Bill will be designed to enshrine in British law the impending termination of EU membership even before the Article 50 talks are concluded.
By devising this largely symbolic and constitutionally questionable procedure, May won loud applause from hardcore Euroskeptics in her party and the British media. She may also have silenced objections from Conservative moderates to the way she intends to conduct the Brexit process: her insistence on invoking Article 50 without a parliamentary debate and her refusal to say anything in advance about her negotiating objectives.
But in the process, May has stumbled into a political minefield. Her efforts to enact the Great Repeal Bill will give Brexit opponents endless opportunities for parliamentary manoeuvers and delays. The House of Lords, overwhelmingly dominated by the older generation of staunchly proEuropean politicians who do not need to worry about antagonising pro-Brexit voters, will be able to spend months or even years picking May’s proposals apart and introducing amendments. The Lords’ powers of revision and delay will, in turn, empower the large majority of MPs in the House of Commons who oppose Brexit but now feel obliged to abide by the referendum.
May commands a majority in the Commons of only 12 to 16, depending on how certain Irish MPs are counted. That is substantially lower than the number of ambitious Conservative young politicians whose careers May abruptly ended by purging from government almost everyone closely allied to David Cameron and George Osborne. Already, George Osborne, whom May sacked as Chancellor the moment she took office, has thrown down the gauntlet, challenging her democratic mandate: “Brexit won a majority. Hard Brexit did not.” Even the weakness of Britain’s opposition parties works against May, allowing opponents to plot against her, secure in the knowledge that they cannot lose power.
Worst of all, from a purely political standpoint, May’s weekend announcements have disabled the one sure-fire weapon she possessed against enemies who will oppose her for reasons of European ideology or personal revenge: her ability to win a personal mandate and an overwhelming parliamentary majority by calling a general election while the Labour opposition is still in disarray and before the costs of Brexit fully materialize.
May has said that calling an early election would be irresponsible and destabilizing, but the fear that she would eat these words and call an election anyway, thereby gaining complete mastery of British politics for the next five years, was the strongest force deterring an anti-Brexit movement developing in parliament or the pro-European media. That risk has now been removed because the Great Repeal Bill strategy closes off the option of an early election, at least until May loses a vote of confidence on this bill, which could not happen until 2018.
The upshot is that politics in Britain, far from being stabilised by May’s effortless ascent, is about to become even more unpredictable in the years ahead. Meanwhile, investment and capital inflows will surely deteriorate as the EU takes a hard line against May’s bizarre negotiating strategy of refusing to recognize the obvious tradeoffs between the economic benefits of EU membership and the political obligations: “I know some people ask about the trade-off between controlling immigration and trading with Europe; but that is the wrong way of looking at things,” May said over the weekend. Is it possible that May really believes this? If so, then Britain is in for a serious shock when the EU divorce talks get down to serious business next year and May is presented with a simple choice.
No wonder sterling fell sharply the moment currency markets opened in New Zealand on Monday morning. With the pound still trading at the same level against the euro as three years ago, both politics and economics suggest that more selling is to come.