The Government was able to breathe a sigh of relief as the EU Withdrawal Act received Royal Assent just in time for summer recess. But the first act in this session’s parliamentary drama picks up where we left off: with the Customs and Trade Bills.
The Government scraped through with only one defeat in the Commons on an amendment which would require it to negotiate access to the European medicines regulatory network. It then accepted four pro-Brexit Conservatives’ amendments to the Customs Bill, and saw off soft-Brexit MPs’ attempts to introduce a customs union fallback in the Trade Bill.
Now both bills return to the Lords in the short pre-conference September session.
The Lords are unable to amend the Customs Bill but could vote to reject it in its entirety instead of giving it a second reading on 4 September.
Peers are unlikely to reject it. Whatever they think of the bill as amended, this legislation is needed for the Government to establish a new customs regime after Brexit. As the risk of a ‘no deal’ Brexit looms, this legislation will need to be in place by March 2019. The majority of peers will, on past form, not want to be perceived as attempting to ‘derail’ Brexit or risk making Brexit even more disorderly.
The Trade Bill (returning on 11 September) is a different story. Lords are free to amend it as they see fit and can take their time scrutinising provisions.
This bill allows the Government to implement new obligations using secondary legislation from ‘rolled over’ trade agreements that the UK is currently party to as part of the EU. The key question is how Parliament will be kept informed of, and scrutinise, this process?
This reflects a central tension in debate being played out in Parliament: does ‘taking back control’ mean control goes to the Government or to Parliament?
The Government does not have a majority in the Lords and big defeats are possible, as we saw with the EU Withdrawal Act. However, what really matters will be whether the Commons seizes its opportunity to ‘think again’ when the bill returns to it during ping-pong.
Events in the Lords over the next two weeks are just a taster of what is to come. We are still waiting for more Brexit legislation: the Agriculture and Fisheries Bills are yet to be introduced and the migration white paper still hasn’t been published. Parliament will also need time to have its ‘meaningful vote’ on a deal – if reached. Although if it isn’t, under the EU Withdrawal Act, Parliament will also need to vote.
There is also huge uncertainty due to internal divisions in both parties. The Government has been running scared of its Remain-leaning MPs – led by Dominic Grieve – who were responsible for the only Commons’ government defeat over the EU Withdrawal Act. But the Government now seems more nervous about confronting its most pro-Brexit MPs.
It has also lost one of its votes with the suspension, until mid-November, of Ian Paisley Jr – and may lose another if Frank Field decides to resign to fight a by-election. Meanwhile, a very divided Labour is an unknown quantity.
As exit day looms closer, parliamentary arithmetic will be key and we can expect some extremely tight votes in the Commons.
Keep up to date with the parliamentary progress of Brexit legislation with our bill tracker.