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EU referendum highlights party divisions

29 February 2016

Richard Messingham considers the latest political manoeuvrings following the Prime Minister's EU negotiations.


There is no doubt that this week has been dominated by the conclusion of the Prime Minister's EU negotiations on Friday. With what the Government called significant concessions (outlined below), the Prime Minister stated that the Government's official position would be to campaign to stay in the EU.

Soon after the negotiations were concluded members of the Cabinet began to declare how they would campaign with seven siding with the leave campaign. The seven included the Lord Chancellor Michael Gove, former Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling and London Mayor Boris Johnson giving considerable strength to the campaign which had struggled gain high profile support before the negotiations concluded.

The Prime Minister has made it clear that he will be using the full force of the Government to campaign to remain with "leave" ministers being told by the Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood that they will not be able to access to information on EU law and they cannot use civil servants, including special advisers, to support them on EU.

The Lord Chancellor's decision has caused considerable issues for the Government as he publically stated that the Prime Minister's negotiations could be overturned by the European Court of Justice. Commentators, and supposedly some of his fellow Conservative MPs, have suggested that such public comments could make his position as Justice Secretary untenable.

As yet there is no sign from the Prime Minister that he will be restructuring his Cabinet. In any case any reshuffle is likely to be held after the referendum result and may to be used to bring the factions of the party together rather than separate them.

With 16 weeks until the public makes its decision, we expect to see continued media and political attention on the pro and cons of EU membership. With the political machine distracted by the referendum, we are likely to see a slowing down of policy development. Further slowdown to policy will be caused by the upcoming Government purdah on 24 March which will mean that civil servants may be able to launch consultations or propose major policy decisions to Ministers. Some have suggested that the Government may not be back to full speed until the referendum vote on 23 June.

Monday 22 February

House of Commons: written statement

On Monday the Prime Minister delivered his statement to the House of Commons on the European Council Summit that took place on 17/18 February. He announced that the Government position is to remain in the European Union, although collective responsibility of ministers has been suspended. Seven people who attend Cabinet will campaign to leave the EU including the Lord Chancellor. The referendum will take place on 23 June.

The Prime Minister published a report on the EU summit's negotiation outcomes. The negotiations cover the following area:

  • Economic governance: Protections for the UK in the EU’s economic governance including that UK businesses trading in the Single Market cannot be discriminated against because the UK is outside the Eurozone, the UK keeps the responsibility for supervising its financial stability and UK taxpayers will never be required to pay for Eurozone bail outs.
  • Competitiveness: The EU will set specific targets in key sectors to reduce regulatory burdens and a new focus on further extending the Single Market to help bring down the remaining barriers to trade within the EU and pursue free trade agreements with the world's most dynamic economies
  • Sovereignty: The UK will have a specific confirmation that the concept of ‘ever closer union’ will not apply to them and national parliaments can combine to block unwanted EU legislative proposals.
  • Welfare and free movement: The UK will have an emergency brake to limit full access to in-work benefits by newly arrived EU workers for up to 4 years when they enter our labour market for the next years, the EU commits to new legislation to prevent illegal migrants from using marriage to an EU national living in the UK and ensures greater freedom for the UK to act against the threat of crimes being committed by EU nationals.

This decision is binding in international law on all EU countries and will take effect immediately if the British people vote to remain in the EU. It is also irreversible without the UK’s consent: the decision was agreed by all of the Member States and cannot be amended or revoked unless all Member States, including the UK, agree.

Additionally, secondary legislation needed to hold the referendum has been laid which set the date of the EU referendum and prescribe the length of the referendum period, the start of the period for applications for becoming a designated organisation and periods for reporting of donations or regulated transactions.

The Prime Minister's main argument for remaining in the EU were:

  • The UK leaving the EU would mean 53 trade agreements being unwound. This could be described as nothing but "risk, uncertainty or a leap in the dark".
  • The US has said a deal with the UK would have to wait at least until TTIP is secured, leading to years and years of delay for the UK outside of the EU.
  • "Whatever choice, we will be great, but the choice is will we be a greater Britain in the EU". He said it was a time for "strength in numbers". Cameron is not standing for re-election, he has no other interest than the interests of the country.
  • The opt-out from ever closer union was a fundamental change to how the EU runs, allowing different countries to move at different speeds and end up at different destinations. Where possible, the EU will now have to review powers and consider where they could be returned to Member States.
  • No country has received access to the EU single market without accepting free movement or EU budget contributions.

He noted that if the UK votes to leave, Article 50 of the Treaties will be invoked, beginning a two-year period of negotiation and the current negotiation agreement will be void.

House of Commons: written answers - European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)

Following a question from Conservative MP Christopher Chope, Human Rights Minster Dominic Raab MP stated that there is clearly no prospect of the EU to accede to the ECHR any time soon due to a number of complex issues.

House of Commons: written answers - Court closures

Following a question from Shadow Human Rights Minister Andy Slaughter MP, Shailesh Vara MP stated that the Ministry of Justice have only received one complaint about the standard of the recent consultation on the provision of court and tribunal estate in England and Wales. He stated that during the consultation process they were notified of inaccuracies in the consultation document and these were corrected in the published response.

Tuesday 23 February

House of Commons: Select Committee - Justice Select Committee: Lord Chief Justice evidence session

The Lord Chief Justice went in front of the Justice Select Committee in a one-off session on his recent report to Parliament. Please find here the main points he raised:

  • Court fees and litigation costs - The Lord Chief Justice noted that the impact of fee increases is still being assessed by the MoJ but the judiciary remains concerned about the effect on access to justice.
  • Digital inclusion - David Hanson MP (Lab) mentioned the Law Society's concerns that vulnerable people may not have adequate access to justice. He suggested that being on-line is a challenge for many people and therefore some guiding hand is needed. The Lord Chief Justice ruled out that the Government would be willing to go back to traditional model of legal aid. He however acknowledged that digital exclusion is a very serious problem and that it is important to understand how the legal profession will fit into this.
  • Fixed costs - Questioned about the introduction of fixed costs, the Lord Chief Justice noted that fixed costs work well in other systems and help keep costs proportional. He argued, however, that they should be incremental.
  • Briggs Review and modernisation of the system - Victoria Prentis MP (Con) asked the Lord Chief Justice about the impact of court closures on access to justice. He noted that two issues have to be carefully considered: access to IT and security, especially for civil buildings. He also commended the work of Lord Justice Briggs, especially in relation to online courts, noting that costs are too high and the system is designed for lawyers, therefore it needs to be reformed. The Lord Chief Justice argued that such reform ought to involve primary legislation.
  • Judicial review (JR) reform - The Lord Chief Justice said it may be desirable to look at JR reform again.
  • Diversity - Philip Davies MP (Con) asked him how many judges come from a working class background. The Lord Chief Justice said there are no statistics. He commended the work done by the City to improve social mobility.
  • Human Rights - the Lord Chief Justice pointed out that the judiciary should stay out of the political debate and remain impartial.

House of Commons: Legislation - Enterprise Bill

The Enterprise Bill undertook fifth and sixth sessions in Committee Stage. The Bill will undertake two further committee sessions. Read the sessions here and here.

Wednesday 24 February

Nothing to report.

Thursday 25 February

House of Commons: Legislation - Enterprise Bill

The Enterprise Bill undertook two further sessions in Committee Stage. The Bill will now enter Report Stage on 8 March. Read the sessions here and here.

House of Commons: Correspondence - Lord Chancellor writes to Joint Committee on Human Rights

The Lord Chancellor responded to a letter from Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights Harriet Harman MP stating that the consultation on the British Bill of Rights will be published in due course and will be in adherence with the Cabinet Office guidance on pre-election periods.

House of Commons: Oral Questions - Attorney General Questions

On Thursday the Attorney General answered questions from MPs across the House. The key points of relevance were:

  • British Bill of Rights - The Attorney General reiterated that the British Bill of Rights will be published in line with Cabinet Office guidance on purdah periods. After a number of questions from SNP members, he reiterated that the devolved administrations would be consulted when the proposals were brought forward.
  • Draft Investigatory Powers Bill - Shadow Immigration Minister Sir Keir Starmer QC MP asked the Solicitor General whether the court case being brought forward by Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson and Conservative MP David Davis would delay the introduction of the Investigatory Powers Bill. The Solicitor General responded saying he did not believe it would delay the introduction.

Friday 26 February

Nothing to report.

Tags: Westminster weekly update | David Cameron | European Union | Brexit

About the author

Richard Messingham is head of public affairs at the Law Society. He and his team are responsible for supporting the president and CEO to manage the Society's relationships with Parliamentarians, Ministers, civil servants and other major stakeholders of direct relevance to solicitors.
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