Hundreds of amendments. Hours of debate. Acres of media coverage and speculation. Then at the end of it all, Theresa May’s Article 50 Bill passed the Commons with no changes and without causing her any major headaches. The Bill now goes to the House of Lords – the final barrier before May can start her Brexit negotiations.
Onwards to Brexit!
It could have been much more complicated. During the week, it looked like there would be significant rebellions over both the status of EU nationals living in the UK and whether Parliament would get a vote on the final Brexit deal. A well-timed letter from the Home Secretary to some truculent Tory backbenchers promised to resolve the status of EU citizens as soon as possible once negotiations begin. The letter doesn’t guarantee much, but it was enough to head off a rebellion.
The Government looked like it might be in more danger over the role of Parliament, right up until the point Labour got involved. The Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, had barely started his speech about MPs getting a say on the deal when a Minister, David Jones, asked if he could interject. He told MPs that everything was fine because Parliament would, in fact, be getting a vote after all.
The result was uproar. Starmer was immediately on his feet praising the decision as a major climb-down from the Government. His team put out a press release before he even finished speaking claiming victory for Labour. It was left to the backbenches, led by Ken Clarke, to probe the detail. It quickly became apparent that there was nothing new on offer at all. The vote would be “take it or leave it” – accept the deal the Government gets, or we leave with nothing. Nevertheless, in a rush to claim credit, Labour withdrew its proposed amendment and the Bill passed with no new guarantees included. The Bill passed with a majority of 372.
The Bill is also expected to pass through the Lords, but Liberal Democrat peers still hope to make trouble. Lords are hopeful they can succeed to amend the Bill where the Commons failed – but some Government sources have threatened the nuclear option of reforms to the upper chamber if it tries to hold up the Brexit process.
While May’s team celebrated its win, not everyone was magnanimous in victory. After the vote, Brexit Secretary David Davis approached Labour’s Diane Abbott in Parliament’s Stranger’s Bar. Abbott had voted in favour of the Bill after much agonising, and Davis chose to ‘congratulate’ her with a kiss. In full view of a group of journalists. Abbott, rightly, told him where his unwelcome advances could go.
Abbott wasn’t the only Labour figure in an uncomfortable position this week. Clive Lewis, the Shadow Business Secretary, resigned from his position and joined 51 of his colleagues in voting against the Third Reading of the Bill. Many Labour rebels had frontbench positions but it appears unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn will have the strength to sack them – or that he has have the numbers to replace them if he did. Lewis is now widely perceived to be ‘on manoeuvres’ and positioning himself for a leadership bid. The contest would be the third leadership fight in as many years – could Corbyn survive again?
With all the political to-and-fro, the impact of Brexit on business can sometimes get lost but it’s clear the Government has been doing some thinking behind the scenes. A leaked document unearthed by The Times showed a list of high and low priority sectors for the Government to cover in the Brexit negotiation. At the top of the list: pharmaceuticals, financial services and agriculture, amongst others. There’s less good news if you work in steel, professional services, retail or education – the Government thinks your industry is less important. Time is running out for businesses who want to influence the Government’s negotiating strategy. If you’re in a low priority sector, now might be a good time to start engaging.
Week in Quotes
“Frankly, I cannot think of a greater signal of weakness than for the House to send the government back to the European Union saying that we want to negotiate further.” – Brexit Minister David Jones outlines why parliament can’t have a proper vote on any exit deal.
“If we were to exit without a proper deal, this great country would be in the bizarre situation of having no trading relations with the rest of the world, which is a situation we will not have been in since some time before King Henry VIII and the beginning of empire. Ridiculous. It would be madness. World Trade Organisation rules? Insane.” – Labour MP David Lammy makes his feelings on a new trade deal clear.
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