The Government is under serious pressure as the EU Withdrawal Bill returns to the House of Commons on 12 and 13 June, as MPs vote on amendments made to the bill in the House of Lords (the first stage of ‘ping-pong’).
There are three amendments which have attracted the most attention: the customs union amendment, the European Economic Area (EEA) amendment, and the ‘meaningful vote’ amendment.
The customs union amendment is relatively weak and unlikely to tie the Government’s hands if it passes. Meanwhile, the EEA amendment is neither main party’s policy on Brexit, so is unlikely to pass.
So of the three, the one to watch is the ‘meaningful vote’ amendment. Introduced by Conservative peer Viscount Hailsham in the Lords, the amendment says that Parliament should set the ’direction’ for the Government if it rejects the deal brought back from Brussels, or fails to reach agreement with the EU before March 2019.
This amendment is likely to get the support of backbench Conservative MPs – necessary to defeat the Government – because it does not aim to change the substance of Brexit. Rather, it aims to give more control to Parliament, which more backbench MPs would find palatable.
And the ‘meaningful vote’ is the most disruptive to the Government. Although the vote on the withdrawal agreement is “more than a yes-or-no choice”, this amendment passing will make it harder for the Government to use the threat of a ‘no deal’ exit to force the withdrawal agreement through.
The Government is challenging nine of the Lords’ 15 amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill. But where it thinks it is seriously at risk – as is the case with the ‘meaningful vote’ – it has offered an ‘amendment in lieu’.
The Government has moved from its original position: the amendment ‘in lieu’ in response to the ‘meaningful vote’ amendment goes further than current drafting of Clause 9 in the bill and sets out the process for Parliament’s vote on the final deal. However, it does not give the Houses the decisive role requested by the Lords. Rather than let Parliament decide next steps if the withdrawal agreement is rejected, it merely requires a minister to make a statement on Government plans.
The meaningful vote amendment has the support of the opposition parties in the Commons because it gives control to Parliament, therefore how backbenchers in the Conservative party choose to vote will be crucial. Currently, it is unclear how backbenchers in the Conservative party will respond to the Government’s amendment in lieu.
Parliamentarians are increasingly concerned about being sidelined in negotiations and key bills are being delayed to avoid uncomfortable debates and defeats. The proposed text put forward by the Government does not address those concerns.
While a defeat on the ‘meaningful vote’ will send a clear message to Government over its handling of Parliament, there is still a limit to how much Parliament can influence the negotiating process.
The UK is only one party in the negotiations. If Parliament rejected the deal and sent Theresa May back to Brussels, the EU would need to be willing to reopen the talks.
So, while voting to include this amendment in the bill would assert the role of Parliament, it does not give Parliament complete freedom to decide what happens next – or indeed prevent a ‘no deal’ scenario.
The EEA amendment, which asks the Government to make continued access to the Single Market its negotiation objective, is unlikely to pass. It’s neither Conservative nor Labour party policy; the Labour frontbench have gone as far as tabling their own – weaker – amendment to try and dissuade backbenchers from rebelling.
The customs union amendment has more of a chance of being voted through, but it wouldn’t make any difference to government policy – it just requires the Government to make a statement to Parliament. The amendments significance is symbolic rather than substantive.
But there are nine more bills to go. Conservative backbenchers have tabled stronger amendments on both these issues to the trade and customs bills. The Prime Minister has reportedly told her MPs to go easy on the EU Withdrawal Bill, promising them their voices will be heard in July when the trade and customs bills return.
These amendments could be the canaries in the coalmine for the rest of the Brexit bills. If Parliament is willing to vote against the Government now, it will be a clear indication of the battles to come.