For perhaps the first time in Theresa May’s premiership, Brexit wasn’t centre stage this week. Indeed, the news was dominated by a good, old fashioned row about the Budget. News about our exit from the European Union is never far away though, as amendments from the Lords put Theresa May’s Article 50 Bill under increasing pressure and minds turn to the upcoming exit talks.
Meet the Lords
“The Lords would not go down without a fight”. So said Lord Tyler, a former Liberal Democrat MP, in the BBC’s Meet the Lords documentary. He was talking about the Cameron government’s attempts to stop the Lords rebelling over benefit cuts but his words are just as fitting to the upper house’s attitude to the Article 50 Bill.
Peers have twice managed to succeed where the Commons failed and two separate amendments are now attached to the Bill. An amendment guaranteeing Parliament a ‘meaningful vote’ on the final Brexit deal joined an earlier amendment on the rights of EU nationals. The Bill must now return to the Commons where Theresa May has vowed to defeat the proposals for a second time. She is almost certain to succeed and it is expected that the House of Lords will then back down. Apart from the now-sacked Tory Grandee, Lord Heseltine, and former Business Minister Anna Soubry, there seems to be little appetite for further rebellion on the backbenches. The Commons will consider Lords amendments on Monday as the ‘ping pong’ process with the Lords begins. It is likely that the Bill will have Royal Assent by the end of the week and, assuming the Prime Minister can douse the fire around the national insurance changes proposed in the Budget, May can trigger Article 50 early in the week commencing 20 March.
Brexit seems to be the hardest word
Philip Hammond delivered a slim-line Budget that came in at around half the length of the last Budget. Perhaps the most surprising omission was any mention of Brexit. The word didn’t pass the Chancellor’s lips once; a decision he later put down to the fact he had discussed it the last time around and didn’t want to repeat himself. It wasn’t just the word that was missing from the Budget though. The Treasury’s calculations omitted any mention of ‘divorce payments’ due to the EU after we leave, despite speculation that the eventual bill could run into tens of billions of pounds.
The Office of Budget Responsibility’s forecast predicted that growth in 2017 will be 2%, higher than the previously expected 1.4%. Government borrowing is also due to be £16.4bn lower than previously forecast. However, this is expected to be followed by a period of lower than expected growth between 2018 and 2020, a weaker pound and falling business investment. While this might be Brexit-related bad news, it also might not be the full picture. The OBR’s report notes that the Government wouldn’t share any details about their Brexit plans and any economic forecasting “was far from straightforward” as a result.
The great big Great Repeal Bill
After Article 50, looming largest on Parliament’s agenda is the Great Repeal Bill. This is intended to simultaneously repeal the European Communities Act and to transpose all existing EU regulations into British law.
This will be an undoubtedly complex undertaking. At a breakfast meeting we hosted this week, John Whittingdale, the former Culture Secretary and one of the five Cabinet Brexiteers, told us that the Bill could be anywhere from one line to 20,000 lines long and that, whichever it is, the task ahead is monumental. The Government will have to categorise and catalogue every one of the regulations being written into the UK statute books, something that could run to “at least” 40 printed volumes.
The challenge of what to do with these existing laws is just the tip of the iceberg. Brexit Secretary David Davis faced questions from MPs on Thursday and everyone wanted to ask about the impact our exit will have on different industries. Davis had to provide answers on everything from data protection and farming to whether holidaymakers should be worried about booking flights to Europe. Despite the complexities involved, Davis is still bullish about his chances in the upcoming negotiations. “By far and away the highest probability is Plan A”, he told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, “namely a comprehensive free trade deal”.
The Week in Quotes
“It’s not a catastrophe to contemplate things… If you went out on the street today and said to ordinary members of the public, “should the Government prepare for all outcomes”, they would say “of course”.” –Brexit Secretary, David Davis, on planning for the worst case scenario.
“I must make it clear that, in accepting the mandate to negotiate our withdrawal from the European Union, I do not accept that the mandate runs for all time and in all circumstances” – Lord Heseltine on the sovereignty of Parliament over Brexit.
“If Michael Heseltine is prepared to put himself on the line, if he has the courage, I will be doing the same” – Anna Soubry tells the Financial Times about her plans to rebel.