Dark Osborne stalks the stage as Whitehall grabs the power

By Cameron Brown

Day by day, Brexit is turning the world upside down in ways unimaginable a year ago. For all the talk of division, nationalism and hard borders, this war – and Brexit is a civil war – seems to be creating the strangest of bedfellows.

The 48 per cent, still frantically looking for an avenue (or host) to lead an effective resistance to Theresa May’s plans, may well have found an ally in the former Chancellor. The man you want with you, only because you wouldn’t want to see him against you.

In Westminster’s game of snakes and ladders, George Osborne had spent the last decade leaping up every rung, set back only temporarily by a few short-tailed serpents along the way. He built up a reputation as the bubble’s Machiavelli: always plotting the next-but-five moves ahead, amassing an extraordinary battalion of allies on the Conservative back benches. While his life-long dream to inherit the keys to Number 10 was cut dead, he remains a political paladin and master tactician anyone would want on their side.

Now editor of the London Evening Standard, Osborne steps forward not to return to the political frontline but as an antidote to hard Brexit. Played well, he may well find redemption with voters, some five years since being at the receiving end of a chorus of boos during the London Paralympic Games.

The haunting sound of ricocheting jeers aside, there’s a serious point here: if he can indeed stiffen the backbone of remain MPs to take back control from the Brexit right and their friends on Fleet Street, this presents a real problem for the Prime Minister.

Osborne’s new paymaster, the paper’s owner Evgeny Lebedev, said it himself: “He will provide more effective opposition to the Government than the current Labour party.”

An abysmally low threshold, yes, but by forcing Philip Hammond into a humiliating U-turn on national insurance reforms, we’ve seen already just how far May will go not to upset the pro-Brexit press.

Caledonian Rebellion

Distracted by the continent, May ignores trouble brewing north of the border. The Government’s unwavering insistence that Brexit must mean leaving the Single Market and Customs Union has unleashed a furious rebellion, as well as rumblings in Northern Ireland and Wales.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has forced ‘indyref2’ back onto the agenda, and established that the EU referendum amounts to “material change” that justifies a second go. With each turn of the ratchet, flirting with the possibility a cliff-edge departure, English politicians merely polish Scotland’s sense of grievance.

There’s a temptation for May to dismiss Sturgeon’s threat as a mixture of fantasy and bravado, but to do so would be dangerous. Needless to say, this isn’t 2014: as a line of attack, warning Scotland not to break away from its largest market, whilst May negotiates Britain’s exit from its largest market, will be met with ridicule.

Although it is too soon to say that this makes the break-up of the UK inevitable, the winds are certainly blowing in that direction. If May isn’t careful, England’s nationalists may yet hand Scottish nationalism the prize that has for so long eluded it: independence.

Winning mandate

Then lies the question of May’s legitimacy as Prime Minister. It’s no secret that the Conservative Party is gearing up to fight a general election. Party agents are being parachuted into seats, candidates selected, literature ordered, and canvassers out in force.

Whether Theresa May will indeed call a snap election is up for debate. However it is clear, with a working majority of just 16, if she is to do what she wants on everything from Brexit to school reform, she may need to be prepared to acquire her own mandate by winning her own majority. A quick and comprehensive election victory, which the polls suggest is well within May’s grasp, would silence the insolence and allow her to crack on with negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU with greater ease than what she enjoys today.

There is no denying that the temptation is there: Labour could be bludgeoned into a two-decade spell in opposition. They have no leadership, no strategy, no coherent policy agenda.

Whitehall Power Grab

In just two months’ time, it is understood that Britain will kick off a large part of its preparations with the Great Repeal Bill, a legislative measure to be outlined in the Queen’s Speech in May and intended to provide legal continuity for the country after Brexit.

Except, the Bill is not about repeal, at least not primarily. Its primary purpose will be to place into local UK law almost the entirety of currently applicable EU law. In a wonderful paradox, the Bill will, in effect, be the greatest single imposition of EU law in UK legal history.

This exercise needs to be done because, frankly, two years is not long enough to sort out all, or even many, of the statutory complications of Brexit. So, the Bill is a work-around to place EU law on a UK basis when the conduit of the European Communities Act 1972 can no longer be used when the EU treaties cease to apply in the UK.

To achieve what needs to be done, the Government is likely to put forward several extraordinarily wide discretionary powers under which ministers (in practice, officials) can repeal or amend whole shelves of primary and secondary legislation without much or any further legislative scrutiny.

This is why the Great Repeal Bill will, in truth, be the Great Whitehall Power Grab.

Cameron Brown is a member of Hume Brophy’s Public Affairs team in London.