Tories give Brexit powers bill the silent treatment

Conservatives refused to engage with the emergency debate

The Welsh Government's controversial Brexit powers plan took another large step forward today in the face of an unusual opposition tactic: silence.

Conservative AMs say the plan is a waste of Assembly time and condemn Welsh ministers for pushing it through as emergency legislation. One even went so far as to describe the whole thing to me as 'bull***t.'

They sat silently during the debate: no speeches, no interventions, not even any heckling and in turn they were accused of 'failing to stand up for Wales.'

Today's session in the Senedd was already out of the ordinary because it was held as a Committee of the Whole Assembly, the first time it's met in that way for five years and only the second time it's done so to consider legislation.

It's because ministers in Cardiff are rushing through legislation known informally as the Continuity Bill to claim for themselves powers which are returning from the European Union.

They're doing so without the agreement of the UK Government which is going ahead with its own method of sharing out those powers in its EU Withdrawal Bill, a step which is also controversial because it doesn't have the agreement of the Welsh and Scottish Governments who've called it a 'power grab.'

Supporters of the Continuity Bill (which include Labour, Plaid Cymru and most of UKIP) say it's an insurance measure while talks continue with Whitehall to try to find that agreement.

Until now, the Conservatives have been vocal in their opposition, an opposition led by the former Deputy Presiding Officer, David Melding, who's widely respected across parties for his constitutional expertise, pro-devolution stance and consensual approach to politics.

But last week he delivered a passionate speech against the Continuity Bill when he warned fellow AMs that they 'shouldn't be playing with legislation, certainly not constitutional legislation in this way.'

I understand that when Conservative AMs discussed what their approach should be today, it was David Melding who argued that they'd made their views clear, that the debate was a waste of time and that there was no point in repeating themselves.

I'm told there was no disagreement with that stance and so the official opposition gave the bill the silent treatment, a position that was criticised by a former Counsel General:

It certainly made for an unusual and unusually short debate.

Scheduled for three hours, it lasted just 50 minutes and was virtually a two-hander, with Labour's Leader of the House, Julie James, and Plaid Cymru's Simon Thomas proposing each amendment, explaining their support or opposition and responding to each other's arguments.

Only UKIP's Neil Hamilton and Labour's Jenny Rathbone interrupted the flow.

After the debate I spoke to several leading Conservatives. When I remarked on their unusual silence, one senior figure joked that 'it's always good to be orderly and listening to the process even though it's a pile of bulls**t, and you can quote me on that.'

They also pointed out that apart from Jenny Rathbone's contribution on environmental powers, 'not one Labour member spoke on anything substantive and that includes former Counsel Generals.'

More seriously they added that, 'it's time the Assembly got a grip and started talking about things that are relevant to people otherwise instead of becoming more relevant to people we'll become less relevant.'

Today's super-fast debate is in stark contrast to an equivalent debate in the Scottish Parliament which is also rushing through its own continuity bill.

When I tweeted how quickly today's Stage 2 was completed, my colleague at STV, Colin Mackay replied with details of how long MSPs took to do the same.

Silent treatment notwithstanding, the Continuity Bill continues speeding through the Assembly. Its final stages including a final vote on it take place tomorrow. Judging by today it won't face any obstacles but what happens to it then isn't at all clear.