After its second reading on 11 September, the Commons expected to begin line-by-line scrutiny of the EU Withdrawal Bill in early October. But that was before MPs tabled more than 300 amendments and proposed nearly 60 new clauses – some of which have the support of several Conservative MPs.
This leaves the Government facing the very real prospect of defeat, despite its deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Having failed to engage Parliament in any meaningful way before the bill was introduced, the Government is now forced to negotiate behind the scenes. Hence the delay.
The Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, argues that the gap between second reading and committee stage is not unusual – and indeed there are numerous bills that provide a precedent to support her argument. However, none of those bills needed to be passed within the two-year time pressure set under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
The Government itself says it will need to enact at least eight other Brexit-related bills and around 1,000 pieces of secondary legislation before ‘exit day’. Many of these will need to be passed using powers created in the EU Withdrawal Bill.
Even before this delay, parliamentarians expressed concern about the time available for scrutiny of Brexit-related proposals. The failure to make progress is more significant than Leadsom admits.
It now seems unlikely that the agreed eight days of committee-stage debate will begin before the Commons returns from its Autumn recess in the middle of November. These eight days had originally been expected to be scheduled over four sitting weeks, but may now need to be crammed into three.
With two days scheduled for report stage and third reading and four days of debate on the Budget to fit in, it is now looking very tight for the bill to reach the Lords before Christmas, which appeared to be the Government’s original intention.
Depending on what amendments peers make to the bill – and looking at the reports of the Constitution and Delegated Powers Committees, they are not lacking in ideas – it is likely that the bill’s parliamentary journey will extend some way into 2018.
The Government’s decision to have a two-year session following the election means that it won’t be able to force compromises. Normally legislation falls if it is not completed by the end of a session. This enables Government to use time pressure to ensure that outstanding disputes (including issues subject to parliamentary ‘ping pong’ between the Houses) are resolved, clearing the way for a fresh legislative programme to be introduced in the next Queen’s Speech.
The Government needs to engage better and earlier on the other bills it plans to introduce. There are already delays to some of the promised white papers, which could lead to scrutiny being squeezed and further problems down the line.
Europe is watching
The significance of this delay reaches beyond the legislative programme.
The 27 EU member states are watching developments in UK politics closely, including the passage of this crucial piece of legislation and the extent to which the Prime Minister’s room for manoeuvre is constrained by pro and anti-EU backbenchers. Problems in securing a necessary (but not intrinsically controversial) piece of legislation will be seen by the EU27 as putting a big question mark over the Government’s ability to deliver any deal.
The timetable for the EU Withdrawal Bill appears to have slowed. The problem is that the one certainty in the Brexit process – that the UK needs to be ready to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 – is rapidly approaching.