Ed Miliband's well-received speech saw him demand the prime minister justify his comments, but he refused to do so.
14 September 2020 12:00 AM

Shock and outrage as parliament votes to put government above the law

14 September 2020

No-one expected it to be defeated. But to see the internal market bill pass its first parliamentary hurdle was still a sobering moment. The governing party of the UK was voting to give itself the power to break the law. Something fundamental in British constitutional life was disintegrating. One of the most basic of all the political principles that held the country together was coming unstuck.

There's a good chance that, even if the bill eventually passes, the powers within it will never be used. It's quite possible that these proposals are some kind of deranged and counterproductive negotiating strategy. Or – more likely – they are intended for a domestic audience, to beef up the sense of conflict ahead of concessions with the EU, so it is easier for No.10 to later present a deal it as if it is a negotiating victory.

But even if that's the case, parliament did something alarming today. It gave its initial consent to handing the government powers to operate outside of the law. Britain began the process of foregoing its status as a civilised power which operates on liberal principles.

The powers in the bill are very extensive. The legislation does not, as the government has insisted, give ministers the power to break the law in "specific and limited" circumstances. They are much more expansive than that. In the area of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the bill allows ministers to pass provisions which have effect "notwithstanding any relevant international law". It states that these actions cannot be regarded as unlawful on the grounds of incompatibility with international or domestic law. These are general powers, not specific ones.

They will not require any consent from parliament either, once this bill is passed. For the first six months of the legislation taking effect, they will operate according to the 'made affirmative' mechanism for statutory instruments. That means that ministers don't have to check with MPs or peers. They can just do it. Parliament then has 40 days to annul them. But even if they do, the government can just put the regulation down again.

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