Tonight’s series of votes on the second reading of the EU withdrawal bill are unlikely to be the most spectacular part of its passage through the Commons. MPs have decided in the main to focus on the Committee stage which follows, as this allows Brexit-sceptics to try to force changes to the legislation without being accused of blocking Brexit. Labour is voting against the Second Reading and the programme motion, but the Tory rebels have decided to keep their powder dry, and so the debate this afternoon is much more of a preview of the fights in committee stage than it will be about the principle of the legislation, which is what second reading is supposed to be about.
However, there have been concerns expressed in the Commons chamber about the programme motion, with MPs such as Bob Neill demanding the government give more time for debate as the condition for his support.
The Tory whips have come under fire for heavy-handed tactics, which on closer inspection seem to be nothing more than just whips warning their charges not to vote against the government. These are hardly the days of Maastricht-style arm-twisting, though this may well come later once the second reading has passed.
There is undoubtedly some displacement going on when it comes to the objections over Henry VIII powers that Labour plans to raise at committee stage, as it allows the party to complain about Brexit while sounding constructive about Brexit rather than just angrily obstructive.
It certainly isn’t the worst focus for the Opposition to choose, given the concept of an executive power grab is something that exercises MPs across the Brexit spectrum. The issue of how much powers ministers area granting themselves to change policy without much scrutiny has become so big in the Brexit debate that the government will have to yield and is already making noises that it will. The advantage for ministers, though, is that it is so difficult to define what is sufficiently ‘significant’ that it cannot be in secondary legislation – as well as what is sufficiently ‘significant’ as to deserve the maximum scrutiny afforded to secondary legislation rather than instruments which go through on the Order Paper without debate – that any shift on the powers will be highly technical. And therefore Labour could find itself having to accept a shift as a victory rather than continuing to fight detail which no-one (including most MPs themselves, who tend to view committees scrutinising secondary legislation as a punishment from the whips for missing votes) really understands.