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23 October 2020

THESE are strange times when the Anglican Primates in the UK and Ireland combine to challenge the Government over trade legislation. But then, despite a thin veneer of legal justification, the Government has produced in the Internal Market Bill what Lord Newby called on Monday “the most dangerous and baffling piece of legislation” to come before the Lords in his 23 years as a member.

It is hard not to see something personal in the Bill’s provision to break the law established so recently in the Withdrawal Act. The most humiliating moment in the Prime Minister’s political career was when the Supreme Court declared his prorogation of Parliament to be unlawful. Number 10 appears to have learnt nothing. Lord Falconer in Monday’s debate described the Prime Minister as “happy to sacrifice the rule of law in the hope of a good culture-wars row with Remainers and some screeching headlines”. The animus reaches further, even to jobbing solicitors. At the virtual Conservative Party Conference three weeks ago, Mr Johnson echoed approvingly the Home Secretary’s reference to “lefty human-rights lawyers and other do-gooders” who had the temerity to challenge the extra-judicial treatment of immigrants and asylum-seekers.

Given that the whole Brexit project is about reclaiming the UK’s freedom to operate unhindered in the global market (the phrase does not bear close examination), it is extraordinary that this administration would undermine this supposed freedom by devaluing its moral currency. In the Lords debate, Lord Judge referred to the Government’s assertion “that we are a beacon around the world for the rule of law and international law. The light given by that beacon is being extinguished.” Archbishop Welby echoed this sentiment: “Our reputation as a nation . . . will suffer great harm if law-breaking is pursued.”

As trade with the United States continues to be held up as the great prize for leaving the EU, it is hard not to detect an increase in the viral load caught from that country, manifested in the willingness to bend truth to one’s desires. When those who oppose this new invented truth are ignored or pilloried, it is no wonder that the majority of younger voters are disillusioned with democracy, as reported on Tuesday. Brexit was born out of a desire to escape the constraints forged by the EU. Next in line are the judiciary, who are under no illusion about their precarious position, given the Government’s control of the purse strings. Devolved politicians, especially those in Northern Ireland, fear that they could be next.

Then what about the “do-gooders”? Perhaps the threats of a former Brexit minister, Steve Baker, should not be taken too seriously, and disestablishment is not around the corner. But a Government that works on the principle of “He who is not with me is against me” is not going to forget the Archbishop who accused its ministers of failing to act “justly and honestly”.

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