And we’re off! It’s been over seven interminably long months since the referendum but we’ve finally taken our first tangible step towards leaving the EU. This week, Brexit doesn’t just mean Brexit, it also means ‘the second reading of the European Union (Notice of Withdrawal) Bill’. Much better. While we may be edging ever closer to the ‘sunlit uplands’ promised by the Leave campaign, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Government is still in the dark about what lies ahead. The newly published White Paper offered little substance, unlike evidence given to MPs by the UK’s now former chief diplomat in Europe. He had a lot to say indeed.
The Battle in Parliament
General May took her troops over the top this week and won a victory in the first parliamentary battle over Article 50. In the end, the second reading vote proved to be a cakewalk for the Government. Theresa May managed to marshal her forces and led a largely united Conservative party through the voting lobbies. She was assisted by an unlikely, if unreliable, ally – Jeremy Corbyn.
The Bill is the first opportunity MPs to properly debate the Brexit process and many took the opportunity to rehash old arguments from the Referendum campaign. For MPs like Iain Duncan Smith and Bill Cash – who supported Brexit before it was cool – it was a chance to regale their colleagues with tales about their role in the decades-long fight against British membership of the European Union.
Elsewhere, the debate was less upbeat. Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit spokesman, gave a funereal speech that started by describing how this was “a very difficult Bill” for the party, prompting gales of laughter from the Tories opposite him. Labour’s official position was to support the Bill, but 47 of Corbyn’s MPs stood up to announce they would hold to their pro-Remain principles and vote against it. Even more Labour figures spoke to decry the disasters they foresaw if we leave the EU but announced they would respect the result of the referendum and vote for the Bill anyway.
Just one MP on the Conservative benches opposed the Government. Ken Clarke, the Tory grandee who might have led his party but for his ardent pro-EU views, gave an impassioned speech about the benefits of membership that was greeted with applause from the Opposition. Regardless, the Bill then passed its second reading with a majority of 384.
This, however, was the easy bit. The Bill returns to the Commons next week for MPs to consider the 140 pages of amendments that have been proposed so far. The Prime Minister’s real fight will be keeping her more pro-Remain MPs on side, to stop her negotiating position being decided for her by Parliament.
Conscience and Consequences
The debate raised serious questions for many MPs about how they should vote – and about the electoral consequences. Should MPs vote in line with their party, or reflect the referendum result in their own constituencies? Is it more important to respect the referendum result, or stand by your conscience? In the end, a staggering 98 percent of MPs in a Leave-voting constituency supported the Bill, while 52 percent of MPs in Remain-voting seats voted against.
This was a particular challenge for Labour, whose electorate is hopelessly split between Leavers and Remainers. The risk is that continuing to oppose Brexit will risk an electoral wipe-out. In the end, 78% of Labour MPs voted to pass the Bill but many of the rebels came from Corbyn’s own frontbench. Corbyn’s team fear more resignations will follow as a result. Clive Lewis, the Shadow Business Secretary, who many on the Corbynite wing of the party see as a potential successor, has suggested he might go unless amendments to the Bill are successful. This isn’t just (another) leadership crisis for Corbyn. The party faces two difficult by-elections in Leave-supporting seats later this month. Labour has held both Copeland and Stoke Central for decades but now finds itself under pressure from UKIP and the Conservatives. These results could show just how much of a Brexit bind the Labour Party is in under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Brave New World
During the debate Iain Duncan Smith said he would be happy if the Government’s promised Brexit White Paper was just Theresa May’s speech with “a couple of diagrams, the odd explanation and a nice picture” thrown in for good measure. Even IDS would have been surprised about how close his prediction came.
The White Paper the Government published on Thursday was 77 pages long but added very little in new details about what we might expect from the negotiations. In many ways, it was most notable for its errors. It lauded our growing trade with Serbia and Montenegro, a country which hasn’t existed since 2006. A mislabelled graph informed readers that British workers got 14 weeks paid holiday a year. That would be great news if it were true, but sadly we are still entitled to just the usual five. A few mistakes might be understandable. After all, a timestamp on the document showed that the Government had only finished writing it at 4 o’clock that morning.
It was left to Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK Permanent Representative to the EU who resigned in January, to give Parliament an insight into the challenges that lie ahead. He warned a Select Committee that negotiations with the rest of the EU would be on “a humongous scale” and would inevitably lead to “name-calling and fist fighting”. More worryingly for May, Sir Ivan suggested that a transitional deal might be impossible, poured cold water on the possibility of continued free access to the single market for financial services and said that the UK could owe the European Commission a staggering €60bn after we leave.
However, if there was one key message from Sir Ivan’s evidence, it was that the Government needed to try and understand what the negotiating position might be for not only the EU as a whole, but for each of the remaining 27 nations individually. With Theresa May at an EU summit in Malta today, now would be a good time to start trying.
Week in Quotes
“Not merely forming a new partnership with Europe, but building a stronger, fairer, more Global Britain too. And let that be the legacy of our time. The prize towards which we work. The destination at which we arrive once the negotiation is done” – Theresa May introduces the Brexit White Paper.
“One thing they can all agree on is that we are the rogues who have ceased to pay our dues.”– Sir Ivan Rogers gives his insight into how the rest of the EU now sees the UK.
“Although I accept that decision and I will vote for the Bill, I fear that its consequences, both for our economy and our society, are potentially catastrophic.” – Dame Margaret Beckett, on her vote to support the Article 50 Bill.