Everything you need to know about the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement Bill

The government must bring forward legislation to ratify its deal—but the prospect of another parliamentary defeat looms large

May 17, 2019
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After taking Brexit off the boil since Easter, the government has decided to bring its deal with the EU back to parliament. MPs will get yet another opportunity to vote on the prime minister’s Withdrawal Agreement in early June, but this time it will be on legislation—the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (or WAB as it is known in government)—rather than the previous, symbolic “meaningful votes.” Those votes left the government red-faced after historic defeats. Here is what you need to know this time around.

Why do we need the Withdrawal Agreement Bill?

To ensure smooth departure, the UK needs to implement the Withdrawal Agreement in domestic law. The UK’s constitution means that when it signs up to a legally binding international treaty, it isn’t automatically reflected on the statute book—parliament has to legislate for it. The EU Withdrawal Act specifies that needs an Act of Parliament—so the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is essential if the government is to ratify its deal. John Bercow, the Speaker, refused to allow another “meaningful vote,” but the government must nonetheless press on with the legislation itself.

What will it contain and what are the flashpoints?

There’s a reason this Bill has been kept under wraps—it’s likely to be prove deeply unpopular with some MPs. It needs to:

- Give ministers powers to pay the negotiated financial settlement - Restore parts of the European Communities Act (the UK law implementing EU membership) for the duration of the transition period—preserving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. - Give the Withdrawal Agreement—and any EU law within it—a form of continued “supremacy” over UK law - Put the citizens’ rights provisions into UK law and create an “independent monitoring authority” to ensure the UK complies - Provide for a process for implementing the backstop if needed

If the Bill survives second reading—a simple yes or no vote on the principle of the Bill—MPs will be able to table amendments. At that point, it’s possible a whole host of changes will be suggested by parliamentarians.

A leaked “war-gaming” exercise, run by the government to understand possible amendments, suggests there are a number of possible flashpoints. One example is the financial settlement, where MPs could request that payments to the EU are dependent on negotiating a future trade deal. Parliament’s role in the future relationship negotiations is also likely to feature, with the government already claiming to be open to giving parliament a greater say than in the first phase. Other flashpoints are likely to be when and how the Irish backstop might come into force—and the continued role of EU institutions and EU law in the UK after Brexit.

What are the biggest risks for the government?

The Withdrawal Agreement Bill may get voted down at second reading. While the prime minister managed to whittle down the size of the defeat on the three votes already held on her deal, the contentious nature of the legislation and the apparent lack of movement in MPs’ positions on Brexit means it could leave her with a similar—or possibly greater—defeat than the last big Brexit vote.

The prime minister could offer MPs a series of concessions in the Bill when it’s published to try and win support at second reading—in areas like workers’ rights or by offering MPs a chance to vote on negotiating objectives for the next phase. Even if that is successful, the route to getting the Bill through is still very treacherous.

The government has shown time and time again over the last few years that it would rather accept uncomfortable amendments than face defeat on legislation. But if it tries that approach with the WAB, the government could find itself in serious trouble. Some amendments—for example making the financial settlement contingent on agreeing a future relationship—could put UK domestic law in conflict with the Withdrawal Agreement and international law. That could result in either the EU refusing to ratify the deal on its side—and a potential no-deal Brexit—or the EU ratifying and immediately triggering a formal dispute. It’s also likely to damage the UK’s credibility as a trade partner.

Then, of course, there will be the test of Third Reading and the Lords. In short, scraping together a majority for second reading is unlikely to be enough—the government needs a stable majority to hit the voting lobbies time after time.

What happens if the deal doesn’t pass?

If the Bill goes down it has big consequences for Brexit and the prime minister personally. Theresa May has told backbenchers she will set out her departure plan after second reading, so if the Bill falls it’s likely a Conservative leadership contest will begin straight away.

But this Bill is also the last attempt to get Brexit through in this parliamentary session. So the next time Brexit comes back before parliament, it would likely be under a new prime minister and in a new parliamentary session—but the 31st October deadline with the EU won’t have changed.