The Article 50 Bill returned to Parliament this week and this time it was their Lordships’ turn. The Upper House will examine the Bill at a more sedate pace than their Commons colleagues, but Theresa May is keeping a close eye on proceedings to make sure nothing goes awry. Meanwhile, questions continue to be asked about what life might look like after we leave the EU and the political ground is shaken by two seismic by-elections in Stoke and Cumbria.
Watch the Throne
Peers assembling for the Lords Second Reading of the Article 50 Bill this week were greeted with an unusual sight. Theresa May herself was sat on the steps of the Throne at the end of the chamber. Ministers do occasionally pop by to watch proceedings but to take a seat at the Throne is highly unusual. Clement Attlee sat there to watch as peers debated plans to give India its independence. Perhaps May felt this occasion was just as momentous. After the Government floated the possibility of abolishing the Lords if it frustrated the passage of the Brexit Bill, some felt it the PM’s presence was more of a threat.
She needn’t have bothered. After political heavyweights like Peter Mandelson, William Hague and Tessa Jowell had their moment in the sun, the Bill passed its second reading unopposed. The real challenge to the Government will now begin as Peers start to propose new amendments. Two areas where the more independent-minded House of Lords could cause trouble are rights for EU nationals and progress reports for Parliament. If so, the Bill will come back to the Commons for a second time and May will have to fight off the rebels on her benches yet again.
What comes next?
Meanwhile, thoughts continue to turn to the complex negotiations to come. This week saw Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s former ambassador in Brussels, in front of the Commons Brexit Committee to give his views on how negotiations might go. He warned that European leaders considered trade negotiations to be a separate issue to the talks on Article 50, and that the UK might get a trade deal by 2022 – but only if negotiations were “unprecedentedly fast”. He also warned that sector-by-sector deals, for example for automobiles or pharmaceuticals, might not be possible and reiterated his concerns that the UK would be left with a major bill after it leaves. Sir Ivan might have a reputation as a pessimist when it comes to Brexit, but MPs have been taking careful note of his warnings about the difficult discussions that lie ahead.
Northern Ireland continues to be a point of contention. The Irish Government and the European Commission both agreed this week that Brexit shouldn’t mean the return to a ‘hard border’ with the UK. Keeping freedom of movement between the two countries would undoubtedly be popular in Northern Ireland but questions remain about how a lack of border controls will work with the UK’s plan to limit immigration from Europe. The outgoing Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, further complicated matters by saying any Brexit deal should include a “United Ireland clause”. This would mean a referendum on Northern Ireland staying in the EU by joining the Republic. Whether or not this happens, even the suggestion will put further pressure on an unstable political situation in Northern Ireland.
Back on the mainland, Environment Secretary and former leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom had her own ideas about how the UK might make the best of Brexit. Faced with questions from the National Farmers Union about how Brexit might impact on the agriculture sector – already heavily dependent on EU subsidies – Leadsom suggested the answer might be deregulation. Specifically, Leadsom thinks farmers and shops should be allowed to measure things in pounds, ounces and spoons. With the two consultations on Brexit that Leadsom’s department had promised the sector still yet to materialise, measuring sugar content in teaspoons might not have been the answer they wanted.
La La Cope-Land
Away from Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May both took trips to Stoke and Copeland ahead of yesterday’s by-elections. Labour saw off the threat from UKIP in Stoke, but lost Copeland to the Conservatives in a seismic upheaval. Oppositions don’t usually lose seats to the Government mid-term, let alone seats they’ve held for a century.
Many factors were at play with both contests but the results give a sense of what the new post-Brexit political landscape could look like. UKIP aren’t making the gains many predicted as its support starts to fall away. Labour’s vote share is being squeezed between the Conservatives – even in traditional ‘safe’ seats – and the resurgent Liberal Democrats, standing up for the ‘48%’ of pro-Remain voters. The Liberal Democrats weren’t really contenders in either by-election but their vote share quietly crept up in both, suggesting they’re syphoning votes away from Labour candidates. It’s a long way to the general election in 2020 but things are looking bleak for Labour and quite a bit more positive for Mrs May.
Week in Quotes
“Gory, bitter and twisted” – Sir Ivan Rogers describes the upcoming Brexit negotiations
“We will get the opportunity to look at how we can change rules that will be better for the United Kingdom and whether that’s on weights and measures or issues like teaspoons, those are things for the future.” – Andrea Leadsom weighs in
“I was a remainer: not, I might say, because of my pension rights but because I am a patriot—a patriot rather than a nationalist.” – Lord Mandelson on why he supported Remain