It is when the withdrawal bill returns to the commons. Beyond that, the road ahead for May is fraught with dangerby Alex Dean / June 5, 2018 / Leave a comment
Westminster watchers had been waiting for it: the government has announced the date the European Union Withdrawal Bill returns to the House of Commons. On 12th June the fundamental piece of Brexit legislation will be handed back over to the lower chamber. A parliamentary scrap of epic proportions will ensue.
The bill has undergone substantial revision since MPs had a first pass at it last year. The House of Lords contains many fine legal minds: the bill presented next week will contain amendments which among other things aim to keep Britain in a customs union with the EU (though the wording is convoluted) and even in the European Economic Area, effectively the single market.
What is going to happen? The crucial point is that Remainers are in the mood for a fight. Last month senior Conservative rebel Nicky Morgan told Prospect that parliament could “make its views known, and that will require the government to explore some form of a customs union.”
On the question of the single market, she said that the Lords have “done their job, saying to MPs ‘do you want to think again about this?’ and I think that we should.”
A defeat on either point would be very tricky indeed for the prime minister. Our premier has survived humiliations before; it is unclear whether she could make it through parliamentary rebellion on her most significant policy planks.
If that did happen, the government could collapse and an early general election would even be on the cards. If this sounds overdramatic it is not. There is a great deal of uncertainty in the system at present.
The question then is one of parliamentary arithmetic: do Remainers have the numbers? The Labour leadership looks unlikely to back the EEA amendment, which is crucial if pro-Europeans are to marshal enough backers there.
The rebels will most fancy their chances on the customs union. Here parliament could take back control. An overwhelming majority of the Labour Party favours continued membership. Conservative rebels like Morgan, Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke may help them over the line. This would be in Britain’s strategic interests: it would constrain the ability to strike trade deals but at this point, we should be seeking to hug the European economy as closely as possible.
On various other points, Remainers will be hopeful of inflicting defeat on the government. MPs may vote to lock in a commitment to an open Irish border and maintaining EU employment standards. That the government has allocated just one day for the debate will further embolden pro-Europeans, who will feel the government doesn’t really care about parliamentary sovereignty after all.
Theresa May has a habit of making major political gambles in June. Last time she had a nasty surprise and lost her majority. Do not underestimate the importance of this month’s votes: they could provide us with an even greater upset. In two weeks’ time Britain’s political future may look very different indeed. We can but hope.
If the government does unexpectedly make it out unscathed (there is some suggestion that the vague wording of the customs amendment could provide it with some cover) then watch for the arrival of the trade and customs bills, which will pose serious challenges themselves. The road ahead for May is fraught with danger.