And so it came to pass, that the UK government did finally publish a Brexit bill to present to the UK Parliament.
Yes, following the UK Supreme Court’s judgment that the UK Parliament must give its consent for the commencement of Brexit negotiations, the U.K. government tabled the bill which enables such a vote to obtain Parliamentary consent. It is this 137-word bill that will give Prime Minister Theresa May the power to trigger Art 50, and officially begin Brexit negotiations.
The European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill was introduced to the House of Commons and given its First Reading on Thursday 26 January 2017. This stage was a formality, meaning that the bill is presented to the Speaker, its title read out, and all this takes place without any debate. In a statement with the bill, Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis said he trusted that the UK Parliament “will respect the decision taken by the British people and pass the legislation quickly”. In other words, neither he nor the Conservative government will brook no opposition to the bill, and will argue that to reject the government’s bill is to reject the overall decision of the UK to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum.
During Departmental question time, also on Thursday, Mr Davis refused to guarantee that the parallel government white paper on the withdrawal process, which was announced on Wednesday, would be published before the Art 50 bill had been debated in the Commons:
“It will be as expeditious as we can be, it takes time to do. But we won’t waste time in producing it for the house.”
The publication of this bill prompted UK Labour to table a series of proposed amendments, including one seeking to guarantee that the UK Parliament has a final say on any final deal.
The bill, containing just two clauses and only 137 words long, will be granted five days of time in the Commons, the government announced, prompting concern from some Labour MPs that it could not receive proper scrutiny in such a period. David Lammy MP, for example, said the bill was the “most important decision taken for generations” and allowing five days “shows contempt for parliamentary sovereignty”.
MPs will next consider the Bill at Second Reading, and this is the exciting bit in that MPs will have the opportunity to debate the bill. It is expected to have its Second Reading debate on 31 January 2017, with conclusion of Second Reading scheduled for 1 February 2017.
MPs can table ‘reasoned amendments’ to the motion for second reading, declining to give the Bill a second reading. The choice of any amendment to be considered is made by the Speaker. Any amendments that have been tabled are published in the Order Paper, and to date, five reasoned amendments have been tabled.
The Bill is then due to be considered in Committee on Monday 6 and Tuesday 7 February 2017, concluding in Committee on Wednesday 8 February 2017 when the remaining stages are also due to take place.
S1(1) of the Bill provides that the Prime Minister ‘may notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.’. Moreover, s1(2) states that this section ‘has effect despite any provision made by or under the European Communities Act 1972 or any other enactment.’
Interestingly, it is not the only Brexit bill tabled in the UK Parliament. Conservative MP and long-time Eurosceptic, Peter Bone, tabled the PMB, the Withdrawal from the European Union (Article 50) Bill 2016-17. This Bill was presented to Parliament on 30 November 2016, and is expected to have its second reading debate on Friday 24 February 2017.
There is a subtle difference between Mr Bone’s bill and that of the UK Conservative government’s. Whilst Mr Bone’s bill seeks ‘to require Her Majesty’s Government to notify the European Council by 31 March 2017 of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Union’, the government’s bill aims ‘to confer power on the Prime Minister to notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.’ The UK government’s bill, if/when passed by both the Commons and the Lords, directly confers the authority to invoke Art 50 on the Prime Minister. Mr Bone’s bill is basically a ‘hurry it up’ type of bill, stating a deadline for the Prime Minister to notify the EU of her intention to trigger Art 50.
Mr Davis might have commented that he hoped MPs would accept and support the bill, and so ensure the legislation was swiftly passed. However, there could be trouble ahead in the form of the Official Opposition. Labour is divided between following the lead of its leader, or listening to constituents.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, confirmed he would seek to oblige his MPs to back the bill, a decision that seems set to cause considerable opposition within the party. (Quelle surprise.) Moreover, when speaking to Sky News, Mr Corbyn said he would impose a three-line whip to ensure the PLP backed the bill.
“It’s clearly a three-line whip…It is a vote on the Article 50 … We will put out a statement today to our members that we want them to vote for Article 50.”
Mr Corbyn acknowledged the pressures MPs faced from their own personal views on Brexit, and that of their constituents, but urged all Labour lawmakers to “unite around the important issues of jobs, economy, security, rights, justice” to help frame the UK’s relationship “with Europe in the future.”
Perhaps trying to achieve the best of both worlds and satisfy all sides, Labour has tabled seven planned amendments to the bill. One such amendment would guarantee a “meaningful vote in parliament” on any final deal. Another amendment would be to guarantee the protection of workers’ rights and securing “full tariff- and impediment-free access” to the EU’s single market.
The other five amendments are: to ensure Mr Davis reports on progress to the Commons at least every two months, guaranteeing the rights of foreign EU nationals living in the UK; obliging regular consultation with the devolved governments, require regular impact assessments on the effects of leaving the single market, and to oblige the government to keep all existing EU tax avoidance and evasion measures.The final amendment is targeted at the government’s threat that if the UK does not get a sufficiently good deal from the EU it will walk away and shift the economy towards low regulation and tax.
The party will also support two more amendments, drafted by Melanie Onn MP, connected to protecting workers’ rights.
There has now been over sixty pages worth of amendments submitted, including a joint amendment from the SNP and SDLP, who are advocating the Scottish and Northern Irish Remain mandates respectively, and seek to uphold the devolved administrations’ role in the negotiations.
The issue becomes, of course, whether any of the numerous amendments will succeed: they would require cross-party support to pass. With so many amendments, there comes a risk that amendments will fall as parties feel other parties’ amendments do not go far enough, or go too far.
It had been wondered whether Mrs May might have to contend with trouble from within her own ranks, let alone from across the aisle. After all, Mrs May has a slim majority in the Commons, and one which she must guard and monitor carefully. A handful of backbench rebels, especially on Brexit, would present the perception to the public that she cannot control her own party, let alone the Brexit negotiations which will soon take place.
However, it appears that the Prime Minister might be able to strike one concern off the list: she most likely will face no rebellion, and will only have to face down any Labour MPs who rebel Mr Corbyn’s three-line whip, and other MPs who have vowed to vote against the government’s bill, including the Lib Dems, the SNP, and the SDLP.
Indeed, news came today that potential Conservative rebels are now quietly backing away from supporting amendments proposed by Labour, or other opposition parties. Moreover, a band of Conservative MPs fighting in particular against a hard Brexit are indicating they have been largely satisfied by the prime minister’s promise of a white paper. Consequently, Labour and the Liberal Democrats now believe there is very little chance of getting enough cross-party votes for amendments – the very issue I had previously addressed. They had hoped to win support on issues such as guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals, and a more meaningful vote at the end of the two-year negotiations or protections in the House of Commons. Instead, opposition parties are now concentrating on getting the government to concede points voluntarily, with Labour MPs believing the most likely proposal to be accepted is a demand for the Prime Minister to provide quarterly updates to the UK Parliament on the negotiations.
This does not mean that MPs will not seek to hold the UK government to account. Indeed, some MPs may still table amendments or support tabled amendments in an effort to restrain the Prime Minister in her quest for a hard Brexit. For example, MPs may come together to focus on ensuring the UK is not taking out of the Single Market without a Parliamentary vote. After all, the referendum last year asked the electorate whether they wanted the UK to remain in or leave the EU – it never mentioned anything about withdrawing from the Single Market, or the Customs Union.
Mrs May is aiming to have the bill passed through both the Commons and the Lords to meet her self-imposed deadline of invoking Art 50 by the end of March. It seems more than likely her government’s Brexit bill will pass, but not without debate and bumps along the way. How she emerges at the other end before triggering Brexit remains to be seen, but it is important that she does not appeared weakened after a bloody battle with MPs.