EU Withdrawal Bill: What Next?

MPs will today begin the first of eight days of Committee Stage deliberation of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.

The Bill repeals the 1972 European Communities Act which took the UK into the EU. It also transposes existing EU legislation into domestic UK law, to ensure a smooth transition on the day after the UK leaves the European Union.

Almost 500 amendments have been tabled by MPs to the bill, with scrutiny expected to stretch into mid-December. The various amendments relate to issues as diverse as workers’ rights, environmental standards, the Northern Ireland peace process (Good Friday Agreement) and the powers of the Devolved Assemblies.

In an about-turn on Monday, the Brexit Secretary David Davis offered what was spun as a “major concession” to pro-European Conservatives, promising that parliament will be offered a “take-it-or-leave-it vote” on the final agreement about the UK’s departure from the EU.

MPs will be able to debate and vote on any agreement negotiated with the EU by the government – including citizen rights, the financial settlement and transitional arrangements, but crucially, will not include any future trade deal.

However, MPs will not be able to delay or prevent the UK’s departure date from the EU. The UK will still leave the EU on 29 March 2019, whether MPs back or rejectthe deal. In the case of the latter – the UK will crash out of the EU and revert to trading on WTO rules.

The Brexit Secretary announced the move in the Commons after it became clear that the government could face a humiliating defeat on an amendment laid down by the former Conservative Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, calling for a meaningful vote in parliament.

It remains to be seen whether this concession will be enough to satisfy Conservative rebels. Critics have labelled the concession a political “gimmick.” MPs will have no authority to send ministers back to the negotiating table if they are unhappy with the deal, whilst parliament will have no say in a no-deal scenario.

There is broad consensus across the House for the fundamental principles of the Withdrawal Bill, namely that all existing EU legislation should be mirrored into domestic UK law to ensure a smooth transition on the day after Brexit.

The more contentious aspects of the bill relate to the exit date, the scope of ministerial powers, and its impact on the devolved administrations.

Exit Date

The Government has tabled an amendment to the bill specifying that the UK’s “exit day” will be 29 March 2019 at 11pm UK time. Critics have suggested this will limit the government’s flexibility in negotiations and prevent the Government from seeking an extension beyond March 2019.

Labour’s preference is for the “exit day” to follow any transition period – estimated to be 2021. Under such a scenario, the UK would still however be subject to new EU laws and regulations – a prospect which will have Tory Eurosceptics foaming at the mouth.

Overnight, the former Labour leadership contender Yvette Cooper tabled an amendment designed to scupper the Government’s plans to enshrine the departure date into law and to ensure the vote on the final deal has real weight. Her amendment calls for the Brexit date itself to be “specified by an act of parliament approving the final terms of withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU.” With the support of pro-European Conservatives, the amendment might just succeed.

Ministerial Powers

Critics of the Bill have accused it of giving the government too much power to change EU legislation through secondary legislation, without full parliamentary scrutiny. Numerous amendments to curb these so-called “Henry VIII powers” have been proposed. One such proposal by Dominic Grieve, is for a filtering system, where the most significant decisions taken via secondary legislation are given more scrutiny.

Devolution

Plaid Cymru and the SNP have tabled amendments calling on the UK Government to ensure that the devolved Governments must provide their consent before the bill becomes law. The nationalists are also critical of the Government’s decision to repatriate powers in devolved areas, including agriculture, to the UK Government in the first instance, pending the longer-term development of appropriate policy frameworks. This, they claim, amounts to a “power grab” which undermines the very spirit of devolution. Given their parliamentary muscle, the amendments are likely to fail at this stage. However, a fully-blown constitutional crisis cannot be ruled out entirely.

Far more telling will be the pressure which the newly-emboldened Scottish Conservative caucus will bring to bear on the Prime Minister. There were various reports in last week’s press of Scottish Tories applying pressure on the Prime Minister to amend the bill so that a range of powers are devolved downwards to the Scottish Parliament.

So what next?

It is worth remembering that despite all the negative headlines emanating from Brussels and the grumbles of discontent from the “usual suspects” in the British media, the “Brexit fundamentals” remain unchanged.

Crucially, the PM’s Brexit strategy remains unchanged. The fragile truce within Conservative ranks around her approach, first outlined in her Lancaster Speech and re-affirmed in Florence, has been upheld.

The newly appointed Chief Whip, Julian Smith, will be eager to earn his spurs in his first major parliamentary showdown. He, along with the Government, will be loath to make further amendments to smooth the Bill’s passage. The Prime Minister has an effective working majority of 13. With the votes of ‘Labour Leavers’, including the likes of Kate Hoey and Frank Field, this rises to 25. Aside from Kenneth Clarke and Anna Soubry, it is inconceivable that enough Tories will defy the Whip and torpedo the Government’s Brexit agenda.

Meanwhile, the UK economy continues to defy the predictions of last year’s Remain camp. The UK currently enjoys record levels of employment, whilst the economy has yet to experience a single negative quarter of growth since that momentous decision of June of last year.

Far more challenging in the immediate term will be breathing life into stalled negotiations with the EU Commission, though even here there are sufficient grounds to believe that a negotiated outcome remains the most likely outcome.

As with her parliamentary rebels this week, for the Prime Minister it’s a case of holding her nerve and waiting for the opposition to blink first.

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