12th September 2020
This has been an eventful week for law and policy – and for breaches of law and for a lack of a policy.
The highlight – something so extraordinary and constitutionally spectacular that its implications are still sinking in – was a cabinet minister telling the House of Commons that the government of the United Kingdom was deliberately intending to break the law.
This was not a slip of the tongue.
Nor was it a rattle of a sabre, some insincere appeal to some political or media constituency.
No: law-breaking was now a considered government policy.
It was a quite remarkable moment.
That this was now a formal government position was then demonstrated by two other events.
First, the government’s senior legal official – the Treasury Solicitor – resigned on this issue (and my Financial Times post on this significant resignation is here).
Second, the government published a Bill which explicitly provides for a power for ministers to make regulations that would breach international and domestic law.
These two events show that the government’s proposal for law-breaking is not a sudden or improvised development.
A lot of time, effort and resources has gone into this.
The resignation of the Treasury Solicitor appears to have been after a number of Whitehall exchanges involving ministers, officials and government lawyers, as well as external counsel.
Draft legislation also does not appear from nowhere, and a published Bill is itself the result of a detailed and lengthy internal process, before it is ever presented to Parliament.
This proposal has been a long time in the making.
We all only got to know about it this week.
Any constitutional crisis – potential or otherwise – exists on two planes.
The first is the plane of high constitutional principle.
Here the most relevant constitutional principle is that of the Rule of Law.
(On this, I did a short exposition of the importance of the Rule of Law at Prospect and I also discussed it with human rights barrister Adam Wagner on his podcast.)
Put simply the principle here can be articulated as: the government is not above or beyond the law.
The government’s proposal may also raise (or will soon raise) constitutional issues such as the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament (if it is voted down by the Lords), the Irish border and the position of Northern Ireland, and the situation of the devolved administrations.
These constitutional matters are broad and could be relevant regardless of the detail of the proposals – whether the policy in question was about terrorism or agriculture.
The second plane is that of policy.
What is the policy objective that the government is seeking to achieve that, in turn, raises such constitutional concerns?
Here something does not make a great deal of obvious sense.
The purported concern is about the state aid regime on the island of Ireland after the end of the Brexit transition period on 31st December 2020.
I explain some of the detail of this purported concern on this video for the Financial Times.
There are two reasons why this being the cause of this potential constitutional crisis does not add up.
First, there are other ways the government could address their apparent concerns about state aid and Ireland following Brexit.
For example, the government could have a post-Brexit state aid policy that it could discuss with the European Union in a sensible and mature manner, and both sides could then agree how to deal with any conflicts with the withdrawal agreement and the Irish Protocol it contains.
But the United Kingdom government does not know what its state aid policy is and has said it will be 2021 before one is published.
So whatever the ultimate cause of this potential constitutional crisis, it is not (and cannot be) any concrete policy differences on state aid and Ireland – because the United Kingdom government does not (yet) have a concrete policy on state aid and Ireland.
Second, the provision in the withdrawal agreement which the government asserts is the problem – Article 10 of the Irish Protocol – is something this very government negotiated and agreed to itself.
The government would have known the effect of what it was agreeing to – before signature the government legal service would have explained to ministers all the provisions in the withdrawal agreement.
And not only did the current government agree the withdrawal agreement, it campaigned at the December 2019 general election on the basis of putting this ‘oven-ready’ agreement into effect.
And the withdrawal agreement was indeed swiftly passed into law by an Act in the days before the United Kingdom formally left the European Union on 31 January 2020.
In essence: the withdrawal agreement was something this government negotiated, signed, boasted of, campaigned on, received a mandate for, and passed into domestic law.
And now the same government wants to break that same withdrawal agreement, less than a year after it was agreed and signed.
The problems with this are, for anyone other than the most partisan supporters of the government, stark and serious.
No other country will take the United Kingdom seriously in any international agreements again.
No other country will care if the United Kingdom ever avers that international laws are breached.
It is a stunning self-trashing of the United Kingdom’s place in the world.
And domestically the predicament is much the same.
Who will take seriously the government’s insistence on abiding by the law if the government itself openly has law-breaking as public policy?
I love and enjoy watching and commenting on any constitutional drama
(You will get a sense of my sheer excitement on the Bunker podcast on this matter.)
But usually the constitutional drama makes some sort of sense.
Here there seems a deep mismatch – a disconnect – between the potential constitutional crisis and the underlying policy problem.
The United Kingdom does not (yet) have a post-Brexit state aid policy, and with open eyes it agreed to the Irish Protocol less than a year ago.
The problems, if any, with state aid in Ireland after 1 January 2021 do not require the United Kingdom government to propose and legislate for, in September 2020, a deliberate policy of law-breaking.
There is no rational explanation for what the government is doing.
And if there is no rational explanation then that leaves fanaticism, cynicism, conspiracy and/or idiocy.
Each of these are possible – either alone or in combination – but the lack of any genuine policy basis for risking a constitutional crisis, let alone forcing one, makes this a very strange constitutional drama.
This, however, is not yet a constitutional crisis.
There is every likelihood that the tensions here will be resolved by the government u-turning or being defeated during the Bill’s passage through Parliament.
If enacted, then the Courts may find a legal basis for limiting the use of the regulations made under the Act.
That would be the constitution working.
We are not at the ugly stage where a government minister is actually making a regulation that would break the law and there was no way of stopping this.
That would certainly be a crisis, by which I mean as serious and unpredictable situation where there is no obvious resolution – a constitutional contradiction rather than a tension.
A government deliberately breaking the law would create such a situation – and nobody can know what would happen next.
So this is still a potential constitutional crisis, not an actual one.
But it is an extraordinary and spectacular potential constitutional crisis.
ps Title amended to add ‘Part I’ on 13 September 2020
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