Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, was asked what seemed a supportive question in the Commons by Sir Robert Neill, the genial Tory backbencher.
There had been some alarming stories in the newspapers about how the government intended to legislate to override the EU withdrawal agreement, an international treaty.
Sir Robert asked if the minister ‘could assure us’ that nothing in the legislation would potentially breach international legal obligations. He looked a bit embarrassed to be asking such a patsy question, but his expression changed when Lewis said: ‘Yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.’
As this directness detonated an explosion of outrage, Lewis’s colleagues took cover in a thicket of euphemisms. The legislation took the power to ‘disapply’ requirements of the agreement, the prime minister’s spokesman explained blandly. ‘Disapply’ is an impressive bit of legalese, and is the word actually used in the UK internal market bill. It meant the British government signed up to something in the withdrawal agreement but wished it hadn’t.
The PM’s spokesman tried to explain this by saying the withdrawal agreement had been negotiated ‘at pace’ in a difficult political situation. This was an interesting way of saying: ‘We signed an international treaty in a bit of a rush and hadn’t read it properly.’ The phrase ‘at pace’ has been the cliché of choice for politicians since the start of the coronavirus crisis. Unfortunately, it has been so overused, and the results have fallen so far short of the ‘world-beating’ systems promised, that it is tempting to insert the word ‘snail’s’ before ‘pace’.
The PM is given to expansive rhetoric and ‘Moonshot’ ambitions; if mere words could defeat a pandemic and conceal the tearing up of a treaty, he would be carried shoulder high up Whitehall.
One is reminded of the remarkable words of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as they announced their deal to make family programmes for Netflix: that it will ‘help us share impactful content that unlocks action’. This government is good at the language of ‘impactful content’, but this impactful content has not yet done much to ‘unlock action’.