The Government’s Article 50 bill emerged unscathed from yesterday’s first committee stage. Today won’t be so easy. As Isabel Hardman pointed out in her coverage of last night’s session, the real fireworks are expected this afternoon. The session will kick off at 1.30pm and end at around 8.30pm – giving seven hours for MPs to work their way through a series of amendments. Whether these pass or not will be the difference between Theresa May meeting or breaking her self-imposed deadline of triggering Article 50 by April Fools Day.
The list of amendments which will be voted on tonight is – like yesterday’s order paper – a long one. A picture tweeted by Brexit-backing MP Steve Baker, which placed the original 77 page Article 50 Bill alongside the proposed amendments, sums up nicely the scale of what some would like to see added to the Government’s original document.
— Steve Baker MP (@SteveBakerHW) February 6, 2017
Last night’s whipping operation from the Tories ensured the Government weren’t forced to include any amendments at all. But today’s list of amendments will prove more difficult. So what is up for discussion this afternoon?
Jeremy Cobyn’s proposed amendment calling for Parliament to be given the final say on any Brexit deal struck between the Government and the European Union, will definitely provoke some lively debate in the Commons. In short, the amendment says:
This new clause requires Ministers to seek the approval of Parliament of any proposed Withdrawal Agreement before final terms are agreed with the Commission and prior to endorsement by the European Parliament and Council.
The difficulty with this amendment – and the reason the Government are keen to avoid it being passed – is that it could lead to a situation where Parliament gives the nod to a deal only for the EU to subsequently reject it – sending everyone back to the drawing board and dragging out the process. This will mean that whether we end up with a hard or soft Brexit, one thing will be guaranteed: it won’t be a quick Brexit.
Another amendment calls on Parliament to have a say on ‘any future treaties made with the European Union’. There’s also an amendment which could, if passed, make Theresa May’s life very difficult in trying to fast track Brexit before a likely general election in 2020. This clause says that if Parliament rejects any proposed deal with the EU, the Government should postpone Brexit in order to get an alternative deal. It goes without saying this amendment will potentially lead to a to-ing and fro-ing that the Government will be at pains to steer well clear of.
One of the more controversial amendments today is the question of a second referendum on the final Brexit deal. Owen Smith – remember him? – is behind this clause, which calls on the Government to go back to the electorate with the following question:
‘Do you support the Government’s proposed United Kingdom and Gibraltar exit package for negotiating withdrawal from the European Union or Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?’
It’s hugely unlikely this will pass. But Brexit supporters will see even the fact this clause is up for a vote as proof of the appetite among some MPs to stand in the way of Brexit by any means.
This afternoon, MPs will also debate an amendment calling for extra time to be given if the two year period allowed for by Article 50 doesn’t result in a deal being struck. This is an attempt to ensure that the Government doesn’t simply say ‘No deal’ and walk away. There’s also an amendment which says that if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal they’ll be no defaulting to the use of World Trade Organisation rules. Again, this would remove a key strategy of Theresa May, who has said ‘No deal’ is better than a ‘bad deal’.
Meanwhile, the famous Treasury assessments so beloved by George Osborne could make a re-appearance if another amendment being tabled by Jeremy Corbyn has its way. This calls on the Government to delay the process until an ‘impact assessment’ on what Brexit could mean for the economy is published. The amendment also calls on other measures to be published on the impact of what leaving other various part of the Brussels labyrinth – such as Europol – could mean for Britain. For those who have had enough of experts – and for those who don’t want to see more Treasury doom-mongering – this is unlikely to prove a wildly popular move. On Theresa May’s part, the PM will be eager to avoid a situation where reams of paperwork get in the way of the Article 50 starting gun.
We’ll also see amendments calling for a transitional deal to be put in place being voted on. Vote Leave’s famous £350m pledge will also be up for discussion. A number of Welsh MPs are calling for the bill to commit the Government to put into place the ‘Leave campaign’s pledge to provide £17.5million of additional funding a week for NHS Wales’ (Wales’ share of the £350m a week). While 60 MPs have backed a separate, more comprehensive ‘£350m for the NHS’ amendment to the Article 50 bill calling for the lettering of Boris’ big red bus to find its way into the final draft of the Brexit bill.
Elsewhere, SNP troublemakers will do their best to push through an amendment granting a ‘differentiated agreement for Scotland to remain in the European Economic Area’. The Government has been pretty clear on its opposition to a separate deal for Scotland (which would also, inevitably, be blocked by the likes of Spain, who wouldn’t want a separate deal for Scotland to whet the appetite of secessionists). But still that hasn’t stopped the likes of Alex Salmond from having another go.
This afternoon’s session will prove more challenging for the Government than yesterday’s. And the core of MPs who are hoping to either hold the Government to account – or delay, or prevent Britain leaving the EU – are pinning their hopes on at least some of these amendments ending up in the final Article 50 White Paper. The Tory whips are in for a busy afternoon.