The practical implications of Brexit escaped much scrutiny when Britain voted to leave the EU. But the capacity of British ministers to strike trade deals with foreign states has long been central to Conservative Eurosceptic ideology. Reclamation of that particular portion of “sovereignty” was more important to many Tory leavers even than immigration control, although that worked more powerfully on public opinion. Liam Fox, international trade secretary, is meant to be lining up a banquet of deals for British exporters to feast on post-Brexit. In practice, not much can be achieved on that front before the UK’s end-state arrangements with the EU are settled. But a legal framework is needed in advance. That is the function of the trade bill that was published last week. It attracted little attention when Westminster was distracted by other scandals, but it is a document of paramount importance.
Like the withdrawal bill that continues its passage through the Commons this week, Dr Fox’s trade blueprint relies heavily on “Henry VIII powers” – effectively granting ministers the power to write law behind parliament’s back. It envisages an “appropriate authority” implementing legal changes and future agreements “by regulations”. That is a coded way of saying that Dr Fox reserves the right to do whatever he likes without pesky MPs getting in the way.
The bill was published just 24 hours after the deadline for submissions to a formal consultation, suggesting that Dr Fox was not interested in what businesses, trade unions and other affected parties have to say on the subject. That is consistent with the government’s wider approach to the terms of Brexit. It begins with ideology and proceeds with disregard for dissent. So if a wide-ranging market-access agreement with the US requires a bonfire of safety regulations and social protections – as the Trump administration has signalled it would – Dr Fox does not want to give parliament any means of obstruction.
The government has obvious reason to fear scrutiny of the deals it will strike outside the EU. The UK is a major economy by European standards but not the equal of superpowers such as the US or China. Negotiations will be tough and Britain, as the junior party, will be forced into some ugly compromises. Argument in Westminster about the desirability of importing chlorine-washed American chicken is an early sign of things to come. Ministers will find themselves caught between voters, who expect certain standards to be upheld, certain limits to apply, and business lobbies that want unlimited rights of market exploitation. US health providers and pharmaceutical companies would gladly see the NHS dismantled, for example. Some Tory MPs would be relaxed about that, but they would not have public opinion on their side.
Theresa May is in no hurry to confront the real-world consequences of her grandiose pledge that Brexit heralds the rebirth of “Global Britain” – a beacon of enterprise that can only be lit on departure from the EU’s customs union and single market. Not even everyone in cabinet believes she can redeem it. The Treasury, in line with the vast majority of international economic modelling, is unpersuaded. In reality, the UK will surrender practical influence over trade policy via its seats at top tables in Brussels for the “freedom” to have trading terms dictated by Americans, Chinese, Indians and indeed the EU.
But No 10 dare not confront the possibility that the single market – the biggest and most comprehensive free-trading arrangement in the world – is more valuable than the alternatives. That admission would eviscerate its Brexit policy. It would sabotage the whole case for leaving.
The UK’s entire approach in negotiations with Brussels has been skewed by blind faith in economic wonders available through bilateral trade deals that are, at best, remote. The gains in terms of sovereignty – enhanced control of the nation’s destiny in a globalised economy – might well prove illusory. And the bill for expediting that risk-laden choice is designed explicitly to deny MPs a voice in the process. A battle is already under way to defend parliament’s capacity to hold the government to account for its Brexit decisions with regard to the withdrawal bill. But that is not the only device by which ministers are trying to smuggle their half-baked plans and unchecked powers on to the statute book. It is clear that the battle for a proper democratic debate about Britain’s future outside the EU will have to be waged on many fronts.