Tensions within government are intensifying as Parliament prepares for next week's critical EU Withdrawal Bill vote
Divisions within government over the direction of the UK's Brexit strategy once again broke out into the open yesterday, as speculation mounted that Brexit Secretary David Davis was considering his position and Environment Secretary Michael Gove hinted he had won a tussle with the Chancellor over post-Brexit environmental protection.
Speaking at an event organised by the Policy Exchange think tank, Gove suggested the recent row over the powers provided to a post Brexit green watchdog could be addressed by a new amendment to the Withdrawal Bill.
Last month the government launched a consultation on the proposed new watchdog, which was widely condemned by green campaigners over its failure to replicate the powers currently enjoyed by EU regulators. For example, the proposals contained no guarantee the new agency would be able to launch investigations against the government or impose fines. The government also failed to confirm it would embed EU environmental principles, such as the precautionary principle and polluter pays principle, in primary legislation.
The move sparked a sizeable Lords rebellion, which added an amendment to the Withdrawal Bill effectively requiring the government to adopt EU environmental principles and ensure a new watchdog has the same powers as EU agencies.
Following the rebellion a letter from Gove to Cabinet colleagues leaked, confirming rumours Defra had clashed with the Treasury over the plans and had warned a failure to propose a more robust green watchdog would result in a parliamentary defeat. The Treasury is said to be concerned a powerful new authority could undermine economic growth, but campaigners countered that such thinking is both outdated and implies the government wants the freedom break the law post-Brexit.
There are concerns within government that a number of Conservative rebels could back the Lords' amendment at next week's crunch vote.
Consequently, Gove hinted yesterday that a compromise was on the cards, albeit based on a different amendment to that proposed by peers.
"There may well be a response, an amendment in lieu, which seeks to address some of those concerns but also a wider, more constructive way forward," he said. "I think the Lords amendment, while I know the honourable intentions of those who put it forward, wasn't quite the answer to the challenge."
Yesterday Conservative backbencher Zac Goldsmith tabled an amendment with backing from more than 20 Tory MPs that would build on the Lords' proposals.
"It's absolutely right that the new environment body should have the ability to properly hold government to account, if necessary through the courts, and that we put the key environmental principles that underpin our environmental laws into primary legislation," Goldsmith told the Guardian. "This is something Michael Gove has been pushing, against some resistance, but there is significant support for it in the Conservative party and I have no doubt the amendment will not only pass, it will be backed formally by government."
Significantly, the new amendment is backed by MPs from both the Leave and Remain wings of the party. It could also potentially secure support from Labour, which has repeatedly stressed that it regards continued strong environmental protections a red line for any post-Brexit deal.
The main difference between the Goldsmith and the Lords amendment is that it lacks a sweeping clause requiring all existing "rights, powers and liabilities" that contribute to the protection and improvement of the environment to be preserved. But it would strengthen the remit of the proposed watchdog to allow it to sue the government and would require the government to publish primary legislation before the end of the year setting out environmental principles.
The news came as it emerged that Chancellor Philip Hammond and Treasury ministers had refused to give evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), after it sought clarification on the initial row over the watchdog's remit.
"We are deeply disappointed that a Treasury minister is unwilling to explain their position," said EAC chair Mary Creagh. "Failing to come before the committee and put their views on record will only fuel concerns that any new watchdog will be toothless."
It also came as it emerged the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has written to the government to argue that the watchdog should be granted the same powers as the EU currently enjoys, including over climate policy. The letter states that the CCC understands concerns that the watchdog should not duplicate the role of the committee, but argues that "omitting all matter related to climate change - mitigation and adaptation - from the body's remit would be articifial and potentially create problems".
Meanwhile, the government is today set to face the latest cabinet showdown over its Brexit plans with Davis reportedly opposing Number10's plans for how the customs system will operate in the event of the UK and EU failing to secure a deal that avoids a hard border in Northern Ireland.
In December, the government agreed to a backstop plan that would ensure no hard border is imposed if a new trade deal does not specifically resolve the issue. The government is attempting to thrash out the final details of its proposed backstop plan, after rejecting a proposal from the EU that could effectively keep Northern Ireland in the customs union indefinitely.
The new UK proposal is expected to suggest the backstop conditions - which would effectively keep the UK in the Customs Union and committed to maintaining EU regulations - should be time-limited, but it contains no set date for when the plan would lapse.
Davis and some of his Brexiter colleagues are fearful the plan could effectively see the UK default to the softest form of Brexit and are said to be pushing for a stronger commitment for the backstop plan to have a firm deadline.
Speaking at an event in Westminster yesterday he pointedly failed to rule out resigning. "The detail of this is being discussed at the moment," he said of the backstop plan. "It has been through one cabinet committee, is going to another one, and it would be improper of me to pre-empt the negotiation. But I suspect it will be fairly decisive tomorrow."
The plan further raises the prospect of the UK adhering to the vast array of EU environmental regulations and policies post-Brexit.
However, dwindling hopes among Remain campaigners that the UK could yet opt to stay in the single market, the so-called Norway-option, received a further blow yesterday when Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer confirmed the opposition was not in a position to a back a Lords' amendment that would keep the UK in the European Economic Area.
Labour had faced criticism from Remain campaigners over its position, given there are enough Conservative MPs likely to rebel against the government for the amendment to pass if the opposition backed it.
But Starmer yesterday rejected this analysis, arguing that there were a significant number of Labour MPs from Leave voting areas who were willing to rebel against any whipping operation from the Labour leadership to back the amendment.
Labour has instead proposed a separate amendment proposing the UK maintain "full access to the internal market of the European Union" - a stance attacked as essentially a rehash of the so-called 'cake-and-eat-it' strategy that campaigners fear will simply be rejected by Brussels.
From the green watchdog to the proposed customs union fudge, the government appears to be edging steadily closer to a scenario where environmental policy retains a high degree of continuity and alignment with the rest of the EU post-Brexit. But the various warring Brexit factions on all sides of parliament mean a genuinely Green Brexit is still a very long way from being a done deal.
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