So the EU (Withdrawal) Bill has been delayed once again, with Andrea Leadsom confirming a ‘pause’ to MPs this morning. The legislation is so weighed down with hundreds of hostile amendments that the whips daren’t take it anywhere near the Commons, and are trying to work on compromises with the many different groups of rebels in order to avoid a series of embarrassing defeats.
Leadsom told the Chamber that ‘out of respect for this House, the Government are doing justice to the very significant concerns that have been raised about procedures and policy in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, and it will come back to the House just as soon as the Government are prepared to do justice to the new clauses and amendments that have been tabled by Members’.
But what will ‘as soon as’ actually look like? MPs behind the amendments say they haven’t had any contact from the Brexit Secretary David Davis, and I understand that there has been no detailed discussion with Tory or Labour rebels from any ministers on the amendments themselves. The last proper meeting was between the Prime Minister and a group of Brexitsceptics such as Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan, Stephen Hammond and Dominic Grieve a few weeks ago. Soubry tells Coffee House that ‘we had a meeting with the Prime Minister within the space of a day or two after she said she would meet us to discuss our concerns about the Bill. We explained to her what our concerns were and what our amendments were. We had a very good discussion and she listened. Unfortunately the offer of the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union to meet myself and others has not happened. He has not yet requested any meeting. It may be because the Prime Minister is properly in charge and that’s fine.’
Morgan also says that ‘early dialogue on these things is always more effective and we are waiting to have proper discussions with ministers’.
I understand that currently the bulk of the work lies with the whips, rather than ministers, who are still unsure how far they will really have to compromise so they can get the Bill past its Committee Stage. One of the problems is that the signatories to the amendments aren’t just recognised EU troublemakers like Morgan and Soubry but also normally loyal types such as Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Tom Tugendhat and former minister John Penrose. Another problem is that it’s not just one group of rebels: some amendments have been tabled by Labour backbenchers and some by Tories. There are also amendments from the Labour leadership, with Tory MPs have said they will ignore, and cross-party groups of Plaid, SNP and Green members.
In one sense, a long delay isn’t such a problem as the conclusion to the Brexit negotiations isn’t even on the horizon, let alone looming. But it’s not clever tactically: the longer ministers and whips keep the Bill away from Parliament, the longer the inhabitants of Parliament can spend talking to one another about how they can work to change that legislation.