So here we are, mid-March 2017 already, the month in which the UK government triggers Article 50 and begins the two-year countdown to Brexit. This marks the point at which the government’s handling strategy is seriously put to the test. Article 50 begins formal negotiations with the EU – a process likely to go on for least two years, covering the basis of UK withdrawal and its future relationship with the EU. This will be going on whilst the government is domestically trying to manage one of the most complicated legislative agendas ever attempted –The Great Repeal Bill.
The Great Repeal Bill is the vehicle for the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 and the subsequent writing of all EU law (which would otherwise fall away) directly into UK law; it is believed that Theresa May plans to introduce this Bill in April this year. This is likely to be a huge piece of legislation eclipsing all other parliamentary business. Although most of our political class are unlikely to oppose UK withdrawal from the EU per se, beyond that, there is little consensus on what the future of our relations with the EU should look like. In practice, this means that the Great Repeal Bill offers huge opportunity to grandstand and push for amendments which encapsulate individual politician’s views of what the future relationship with the EU should look like.
In Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May is facing an opposition that I believe is incapable of discharging its basic constitutional duty of holding the government to account. This has enabled the government to operate with far greater impunity that its 12-seat majority would suggest. Despite this, on the Great Repeal Bill, the prime minister may well struggle to hold the government’s position in the Commons. In the Lords, the government will certainly take multiple defeats – to a point which could imperil the Bill itself unless significant compromise is offered. If the government cannot manage this process, the mounting parliamentary defeats could create havoc, with Tory Brexiteers rebelling over any attempted concession, whilst the government is pushed yet further by the Lords in order to salvage the Bill in some form. The impression of parliamentary chaos could undermine the wider attempt to sell the government’s strategy, with a disbelieving public being asked to have faith in a government line which it is apparently unable to deliver in parliament. The same considerations apply to the negotiation, where the EU will be confronted with a UK government with an ever-shifting mandate, and seemingly limited ability to follow through on what it promises.
For the government, this is a high-risk time. The communications approach it adopts is particularly sensitive, and could well make the difference between a successful or disastrous Brexit. It will require tight management of the Tory Parliamentary Party to ensure it votes in line with the wider agenda – and understands the importance of doing so. Simultaneously, the government will need to maintain robust channels of communication with an opposition that, under Corbyn, has distinguished itself only through the extent of its incompetence. Finally, the government needs a plan for managing this in the media, to ensure that both the country at large and the EU see a prime minister at the height of her powers, methodically delivering on her plan, in line with clear wider strategy.
Theresa May has been clear that she wants to avoid an election before 2020. How the communications around the Great Repeal Bill is handled will determine whether she is able to wait until then – or is instead forced to go to the country much earlier in order to get a sufficient mandate to push her legislation through.
Article written by James Dowling, head of public policy at communications firm Lansons
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