westminster coronavirus lockdown

The Week in Westminster: A big step forward for Brexit

Your need-to-know guide to this week's UK political happenings

After last week’s slight lull in Big Brexit News, the B word has been all over the headlines this week as big steps towards making the 31 January departure a reality have been made. The other big political happening, the race to become leader of the Labour party, rumbles on as the candidates narrow and vie for union backing. Elsewhere, the growing closeness of the Wuhan coronavirus and the on-going Jennifer Arcuri accusations have been causing headaches for the government. Here’s what you need to know…

The Brexit Bill is here to stay

A major step towards meeting the UK’s 31 January departure deadline from the EU came on Thursday when royal assent was given to the Brexit bill making it an act of parliament – the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Act. The agreement was then signed by Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, leaders of the European commission and council respectively, on Friday, meaning it can now be ratified by the European parliament. The document has also been sent to Downing Street to be signed by Boris Johnson.

While many Leavers see this as a huge victory, SNP MP Ian Blackford used a speech in the House of Commons to warn that this development throws the UK into ‘constitutional crisis’. The governments in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff refused to consent to the withdrawal agreement, contravening the Sewel convention which states that laws involving devolved parties should not be passed without their consent.

“I fully respect that those that voted for the Conservative party in England have got what they wanted,” said Blackford. “But the fact remains that the people of Scotland were told in 2014 that, if we stayed in the UK, our rights as EU citizens would be respected. And moreover we were told that we were to lead the United Kingdom, that this was a family of nations, our rights would be respected. And we find today that our parliament has been ignored, our government has been ignored, and against the express wishes of the people of Scotland that voted in the referendum, and reaffirmed the right of the people of Scotland to determine their own destiny, that that has been ignored.”

The wording of the convention includes an opt-out stating that the UK parliament “will not normally legislate” without the consent of devolved powers and laws have been passed without consent from one of the three devolved parliaments in the past. However, while the supreme court has ruled that Sewel is a political convention not enforceable by law, there is no precedent for a piece of major legislation being passed after all three devolved parliaments refuse consent. While the ‘crisis’ does not seem to be having any immediate effect, it could have a lasting and profound impact on the union in the future.

Labour steps closer to a new leader

Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy have become the first Labour leadership candidates to secure their place on the ballot. Starmer was first on the ballot with backing from Unison, Usdaw and Sera while Nandy was the choice of Chinese for Labour, GMB and the National Union of Mineworkers. Despite this, Rebecca Long-Bailey remains the bookies second favourite to win (after Starmer) and is tipped to win the backing of Unite. She has, so far, only been endorsed by the bakers’ union BFAWU.

Jess Phillips pulled out of the race early this week, explaining she did not feel she was in a position to bring the party together in its current state, and endorsed Nandy as her candidate of choice. This leaves Emily Thornberry as the candidate trailing the pack – yet to secure any affiliate group backing. In response, both Long-Bailey and Thornberry have stepped up their campaigning with Thornberry vowing to make the rich pay more tax and standing on a platform of improving social care while Long-Bailey says Labour must shed its image as the party of hand-outs if they are to regain ground lost in the recent general election.

The coronavirus creeps closer

The coronavirus – which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan – has rapidly spread across the globe with fears it may now have reached British shores. 10 Chinese cities have been put on lockdown, affecting 33 million people, while cases of the virus have been confirmed in Nepal, Japan, Thailand, USA, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea. While the threat to the UK is low and the WHO has not classed it as an international emergency, the UK government’s Cobra committee met today (Friday) to discuss the impact of the virus on the UK and how best to prepare for an outbreak. Currently all flights to the UK from China are being monitored and, at time of writing, 14 people in Scotland and Ireland had been tested for coronavirus with five being cleared and nine awaiting results.

In other news, the police watchdog IOPC has been accused of ‘dragging its feet’ over deciding whether or not to investigate Boris Johnson on charges of misconduct surrounding his friendship with American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri. Johnson stands accused of misappropriating government funds and giving Arcuri inappropriate access to trade trips during his time as Mayor of London. The IOPC was expected to give its decision ahead of the December general election but denies it has been pressured by the government to delay.

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