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…