The Commons has voted on Article 50 and the government has published a Brexit White Paper. Nicholas Wright explains what both things meanby Nicholas Wright / February 3, 2017 / Leave a comment
The beginning of 2017 has seen a sudden flurry of activity on Brexit. The prime minister’s long-awaited Lancaster House speech in January offered some detail to develop her much-repeated mantra that “Brexit means Brexit.” This week, meanwhile, Westminster has finally taken centre-stage.
This is the direct consequence of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, which made clear that the government could not rely on so-called royal prerogative powers to trigger Article 50: it has been forced to seek formal parliamentary approval to begin the Brexit process. Consequently, we have seen two key events: the Commons vote on the European Union Bill, and the publication the following day of the government’s White Paper on Brexit. Both events remind us of the important role Westminster will play in the Brexit process, particularly in terms of scrutiny.
Wednesday’s vote was on the second reading of the government’s Bill. The Bill, when finally passed, will not trigger Article 50; it will grant the government the authority to do so. Thus, the need for legislation is unlikely to affect May’s timetable of informing our EU partners by the end of March of our intention to withdraw (at which point the formal Brexit process begins). What has happened this week is about domestic political process: the wish to “Leave” expressed by voters is being translated into domestic law, enabling meaningful parliamentary scrutiny on Brexit.
That said, the outcome of Wednesday’s Commons vote was, in the end, no surprise: 498 MPs voted in favour of the Bill while 114 voted against (a majority of 384, impressive in any context). Indeed, by the end the only serious question mark was over how many Labour MPs would defy the three-line whip imposed by Jeremy Corbyn and oppose the government. Meanwhile, a solitary Conservative—veteran Europhile Ken Clarke—opposed his own leadership. For the rest, there will have been those, notably committed Leavers like Bill Cash, who have been waiting most of their political careers to cast such a vote. There will also have been some who, like Labour’s Margaret Beckett, feel Brexit to be foolhardy and wrong-headed, yet equally feel bound to respect the referendum result.
To some extent, this was a symbolic vote. More detailed scrutiny and debate—including of the many dozens of amendments MPs from all parties have tabled—takes place during the Bill’s committee stage; this is followed by the report stage and third reading, after which the final version of the Bill is agreed by the Commons—scheduled for 8th February—and then sent to the Lords where it goes through the same process. The Bill then returns to the Commons for consideration of any amendments made by the Lords.
The government’s intention is that the legislative process be swift, given the brevity of the bill (it is just a couple of paragraphs). However, the government does not have a majority in the Lords, meaning the upper chamber has the potential to delay the process if it recommends significant amendments. At this point, the possibility of the bill “ping-ponging” between the two chambers could, in theory, be an issue. But the unelected House of Lords will find itself under significant political pressure if it is seen to be blocking Brexit. So, while ministers are likely to be challenged searchingly over how Brexit will be achieved and what form the final outcome will take, the March deadline remains achievable.
What was at issue with this first vote, therefore, was not whether Brexit would happen—barring a political earthquake of unprecedented proportions, it is inevitable. Rather, it was the opportunity for parliament to lay down a marker in terms of how the process would be conducted. And this, surely, is the job of any parliament: to scrutinise whether and how the elected government of the day seeks to keep its promises.
Further detail about those promises was provided in the Government’s 77-page White Paper. Initially, there had been opposition from Brexit Secretary David Davis, among others, as to the need for such a document given the prime minister’s January speech, and over continuing concerns about “giving away” the government’s negotiating position. However, for the government to proceed on such a profoundly important policy without such a document would have been unprecedented—and could have been interpreted as a deliberate attempt to obstruct parliament.
That said, in many ways the White Paper disappoints, adding little to what May has previously stated: Britain will leave the EU; it will seek the closest possible relationship with its European friends, including a comprehensive free trade agreement; and it will ensure it has the fullest possible control of its borders following Brexit.
The White Paper certainly offers some tantalising glimpses of what might be. For example, the references to a strategic partnership with the EU—a structured form of relationship that the EU has developed with a number of key states including India, and a policy approach Britain has long championed—has the potential to turn May’s rhetoric into a concrete and positive proposal to take to the negotiations. But here as on many other points, there is a frustrating lack of detail.
This is arguably most serious in the context of the post-Brexit arrangements that must be agreed vis-a-vis Northern Ireland and the Republic. Here, paragraph 4.10 states only: “An explicit objective of the UK Government’s work on EU exit is to ensure that full account is taken for the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.” To “take full account” feels like a place-holder in the absence of a more concrete idea, suggesting that the government does not yet know how to solve this conundrum.
Parliament will scrutinise and debate all these proposals and it is then that we can expect our MPs (and the Lords) to really roll up their sleeves. There is the potential, too, for things to become quite messy. There is a small but vocal group of Tory MPs such as Anna Soubry who, whilst accepting the principle of Brexit, are prepared to make life difficult for the government in terms of the detail; similarly, the signs are that Labour may finally start to offer serious opposition on the specifics. Clive Lewis, Shadow Business Secretary, declared that while he would not vote against the Bill on its second reading, he intends to challenge the government subsequently over the detail. A number of his colleagues can be expected to follow suit.
Given her government’s small majority, May will be acutely aware of the potential for spanners to be thrown and a powerful cross-party coalition of “Brexit Pragmatists” to emerge. Careful party management and acute political antennae will thus be needed to avoid problems further down the line.
To misuse Macbeth, “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.” Parliament will have a significant influence in whether this can be said of Britain and Brexit.