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Brexit bill: what’s happened—and what next?

The clear will of the Commons is to fire the starting gun

By Henry Newman  

©Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire/PA Images

The House of Commons has comfortably passed the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. That bill is the law required, following the Supreme Court’s decision on Miller, to allow the government to trigger Article 50. During the course of debate, the government conceded that parliament will have a vote on a deal negotiated with Brussels. Although the majority of 372 at Third Reading was slightly fewer than at Second Reading, the decisive votes will have sent a firm signal to the upper house: the clear will of the elected chamber is to fire the starting gun on Brexit.

The Lords will begin considering the bill on 20th February, after a long week of recess. The Second Reading debate in the Lords will run late on that Monday with a possible vote the next day. Committee stages, discussing possible amendments, will follow. The crucial Third Reading for the upper house is scheduled for the 7th March.

The Lords are unlikely to block the bill altogether. Why? If they did they would force the prime minister to call a general election on a Brexit manifesto. She would certainly win with a strengthened hand. And blocking Article 50 would likely precipitate the demise of the Lords itself: appointed peers interfering with “the will of the people” would not go down well. Most peers—with the exception of some Liberal Democrats—are wary about forcing such a constitutional crisis.

In the Commons the debate has been passionate and at times rather bad tempered. There were a series of compelling speeches by politicians of all parties. On the Conservative side, Ken Clarke was the only MP to vote against Second and Third Reading. Although there were a few Conservative rebels on amendments, and some criticism of government policy, the party still seems much more united than many had expected—particularly given the recent memory of last year’s bitter feuding and its slim majority in the Commons. For the past few decades a basic rule of Westminster-watchers has been that the Tories were the party irrevocably divided over Europe. It’s now looking like Labour is the party most split over the issue—in a return to the situation of the 1970s.

Labour is in real difficulty—a fact openly acknowledged by its Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, who otherwise rather under-performed over the last few days. Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to whip his party in support of this bill is astute. He recognised the obvious political difficulty that Labour will face, particularly outside of London, if it is seen to be blocking the will of the people. But although it’s the correct decision it has exposed Labour’s splits. Corbyn has already faced a series of resignations from his front bench, as well as heavy rumours of leadership machinations by Clive Lewis. Lewis, the Shadow Business spokesman who is on the left of the Labour party, resigned from the shadow cabinet last night. Overall more than 50 Labour MPs, around a quarter of the party, voted against Article 50. It’s of course especially hard for Corbyn to impose his authority when he himself rebelled hundreds of times as a backbencher. Even his close ally, Diane Abbott, gave him a headache by missing the Second Reading vote on account of a migraine.

In the Commons the government used a combined strategy of careful concessions (most notably the White Paper and vote on the deal), specific commitments made at the despatch box, and arm-twisting by the whips. Amendments were also opposed by the DUP, the sole UKIP MP, and a few Labour MPs. As a result, every single amendment was comfortably defeated.

The White Paper was a key request of “Remain” Conservatives and was offered up before the Bill even began being debated. In terms of content it contained little beyond what had already been outlined by the prime minister. The government has been about as open as it’s reasonably possible to be at this stage of the negotiations. Giving away much more would have limited Theresa May’s hand in upcoming discussions.

Ministers also committed to offering a “meaningful” vote in both the Commons and Lords on a final deal with the EU before it goes to the European Parliament for consideration. This commitment was embraced by Starmer as a significant climb-down but subsequent government briefings suggested they saw it otherwise. May had already promised a vote on the deal and it would have been hard to justify allowing MEPs but not MPs a vote. It’s unclear what leverage MPs would have to reject a deal: by then negotiations would be well underway. The choice for parliament seems to be between leaving the EU under a deal or leaving without a deal.

But the Lords will be tempted to return to some of the same issues—notably the status of EU nationals in the UK and to seek further commitments for parliamentary scrutiny over negotiations and a deal with the EU. If there’s ping-pong between the Commons and Lords it’s possible that some MPs who abstained or voted with the government previously will be tempted to change their position. Although ministers will be loath to make further concessions, it’s unlikely that any amendment would really derail things.

What happens next? The government has committed to triggering Article 50 by the end of March. They will need to send a letter to do this which will surely borrow heavily from the language of a new “partnership” with the EU used by May in her Lancaster House speech and in the White Paper. The date of the letter may be brought forward slightly to please Brussels by avoiding a clash with the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome on 25th March.

Once the letter is sent the two-year countdown timer will begin. It often seemed that the six months after the referendum in late June 2016 were spent re-hashing the arguments of the first half of that year. Things have changed: over the last few weeks the shape of the government’s Brexit plan and the prime minister’s red lines have become much clearer. But we still don’t know exactly how Brussels and capitals will respond—the EU institutions, and member states, have so far obdurately held to the position that negotiation cannot begin without notification.

Once we notify the first discussions will be over process: the UK is keen to debate both the Article 50 exit agreement and the shape of the future relationship in parallel; the Commission has tried to suggest that they should be more sequential. Little substantive discussion is expected before elections in France and Germany are out of the way. Then there will be relatively little time left to secure agreements, not least as any transitional agreements will need to be locked down quickly. Even if further concessions to allow greater parliamentary scrutiny are not made, parliament will return to the question of our future relations with the EU again and again over the coming months.

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