The European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill was published on 26th January 2017 as a result of the recent Supreme Court Brexit ruling that only an Act of Parliament can allow Theresa May to invoke Article 50 and begin the negotiations to end Britain’s membership of the European Union.
The government failed to be disheartened by their loss in the Supreme Court, promptly releasing what they have called a “straightforward” Bill, consisting of only two clauses. Although the Supreme Court judgment may appear to be a win for the Remainers, the fate of Britain’s exit from the European Union is now in the hands of the parliamentary process.
The Prime Minister is under pressure to trigger Article 50 before her self-imposed deadline of March 2017, however she will face significant challenges, some already arising from within her own party. Conservative backbenchers such as Ben Howlett, MP for Bath called for a White Paper setting out the government’s policy on Brexit negotiations post invoking Article 50. This, Howlett believes, will allow him to provide his constituents with legitimate reasons for voting in favour of the Bill despite supporting Remain in the Referendum.
Theresa May unexpectedly announced her decision to release a White Paper at Prime Ministers Questions on Wednesday 25th January, much to Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise. It is unknown whether the White Paper will be provided before the second reading of the Bill , however it will increase scrutiny of the government’s policy on Brexit negotiations, acting as a benchmarch for their progress.
The Labour party have released their proposed amendments to the Bill including tariff free access to the single market, ensuring that workers rights, environmental protection and tackling tax avoidance and evasion are all protected following the UK’s departure from the European Union. Labour are also expecting to require Brexit minister David Davis to provide updates on negotiations every two months and a parliamentary vote on the final Brexit deal.
Corbyn issued a three-line party whip to vote in favour of the Brexit Bill, his reasoning being that the Referendum result should be respected. As expected he faced opposition within his party with many Labour MPs threatening to vote against the whip such as Chris Leslie for Nottingham East and Louise Ellman for Liverpool Riverside, two majority Remain constituencies. The announcement also led to the resignations from the shadow cabinet by Tulip Siddiq and Jo Stevens. As a result of such resistance, Diane Abbott stated on Friday 27th January that Labour would revise their three-line whip should not all of their amendments be included in the final Bill and that their current position was to support the Bill at second reading only.
The Liberal Democrat Party have expressed their desire to include a second referendum on the final Brexit deal, allowing 16 year olds to participate in the vote. In the Guardian, Owen Smith gave support for this amendment; also writing that he would vote against his party and could not support the triggering of Article 50 as it is not in Britain’s best interest, he believes.
Despite some MPs threats to vote against the Bill, in support of their constituents, both major parties are expected to respect the Referendum result. No significant disruption is expected providing Labour succeeds in making their amendments to the Bill.
The second reading took place last week, with parliament sitting until midnight on Tuesday 31st January and the second reading vote took place on Wednesday 1st February. This week, three days have been set aside for the committee stage and third reading after which the Bill will be debated in the House of Lords. At this stage it may be passed back to parliament for further amendments as the Peers hold power to vote against the Bill. It is thought they are more likely to do so because they do not answer to constituents or Leave voters.
The parliamentary timetable has been criticised by many Remain MPs including David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham who tweeted that two days to debate the Bill at second reading “shows contempt for Parliamentary Sovereignty”. However, the Supreme Court was not in a position to provide guidance on the length of the parliamentary process to be had, only that it was required. It is unusual for a Bill of such constitutional significance to have a short period of parliamentary scrutiny, in contrast the European Communities Act 1972 which affirmed Britain’s entry to the EU, was debated by parliament for 300 hours.
Outside of parliament, there is less acceptance of the Referendum result and Remainers continue to seek avenues to reverse the decision to leave the EU. One barrister involved in the Brexit litigation, Jolyon Maugham QC, has founded a pro bono project to hold the government to account in the wake of Brexit negotiations. The Good Law Project is currently bringing action in the Irish High Court to decide whether triggering Article 50 can be revoked. Their aim is to provide a “free option in an uncertain world” where the outcome of Brexit negotiations may be unfavourable for Britain. In contrast, the Prime Minister has stated that if a trading relationship cannot be agreed upon, there will be no Brexit deal at all. Lord Kerr who drafted Article 50 made clear when speaking to Sky News that it is legally possible for Theresa May to take back the notification under Article 50.
The Supreme Court Brexit ruling has increased the procedural challenges for implicating Brexit and with no time to waste, the government are keen to move swiftly through the parliamentary procedure. The real impact created by the judgment will be determined in parliament by the power of the opposition in the Commons and the Peers in the Lords. Remain voters can only look on positively that a White Paper will provide a clearer picture of post-Brexit Britain in a very uncertain world.