10 January 2019

The meaningful vote is only the first parliamentary hurdle for the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. Joe Owen argues that the Government would be better off publishing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill now.

The Brexit deal was negotiated around tables in Brussels, but its fate is likely to be determined by haggling in the corridors of Westminster. The Prime Minister needs to find a majority in Parliament to back her deal or the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement will become an expensive but worthless document.

Since the delay to the meaningful vote, nothing has changed. The Prime Minister’s deal is still the only deal on the table (the EU has made that very clear). The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is still against it. Jacob Rees-Mogg won’t support it. And those on the Labour benches worried about ‘no deal’ are not riding to the Prime Minister’s rescue.

But next week’s rescheduled meaningful vote is just the beginning of the parliamentary hurdles for the Prime Minister. Even if she wins the vote, she needs the support of enough MPs to see her through the subsequent Withdrawal Agreement Bill implementing the deal in UK law.

No Withdrawal Agreement Bill, no Brexit deal

The Withdrawal Agreement Bill is just as important as the meaningful vote. UK law means that the Prime Minister needs both passed in order to leave with a deal in March.

The Government may argue that the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (or WAB as it is known across Whitehall) only implements what MPs approve through the meaningful vote and should be passed quickly, without a fuss. But the bill will be full of contentious points.

It will guarantee the supremacy of EU law over UK law. It will temporarily repeal the so-called EU Withdrawal Act. And it will contain provisions to continue sending money to Brussels and a legal articulation of Northern Ireland’s status.

If the Prime Minister is able to cobble together a majority for the meaningful vote, she will need those MPs to stick by her side on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. There will be big votes to come – whether it’s approving the bill as a whole or seeing off amendments.

The Prime Minister should publish the draft Withdrawal Agreement Bill this week

The Government’s approach is likely to be more short termism. If it gets through the meaningful vote, it will present the bill as a fait accompli and try to push it through Parliament as quickly as possible. But that approach carries risks. A hard-fought majority could dissipate on sight of the bill.

The Prime Minister has already reduced Parliament’s opportunity for scrutiny by delaying the vote. She’s promised the bill will contain reassurances for MPs, but not shown them the legal text. And she’s storing up uncomfortable moments for later down the line.

By publishing the text of the Withdrawal Agreement this week, the Prime Minister could show some goodwill to Parliament. She can give MPs some of the time they lost through the delay. She can be clear about what is coming down the track. And she could be a little more confident that any majority will be fully aware of what they are voting for – and remove an excuse for that support disappearing within hours of the meaningful vote.

Any majority will be weak and wobbly; the Government must try to firm it up

If the Prime Minister does manage to persuade a handful of Labour rebels to carry her over the line in the meaningful vote, she will have to rely on them to defy their whip over and over. Can a Conservative Prime Minister pass all the parliamentary stages of a premiership-defining legislation, on the back of Labour votes?

But the European Research Group (ERG) and DUP do not necessarily represent a more reliable majority. A huge wedge could be driven through that majority if the Speaker displays his characteristic leniency when selecting amendments. The ERG may find deserting the Prime Minister irresistible if it is given an opportunity to make a stand on, say, the financial settlement.

The more the Prime Minister can do to secure her majority ahead of the vote the better. By letting MPs walk into the vote with their eyes wide open, she might just help herself out. If not, she is just storing up problems for later. And that doesn’t seemed to have helped so far.

Comments

I appreciate the sentiment, but I feel like this is a bit detached from the political reality. There's absolutely no way that the Government would publish such a controversial Bill when they're already struggling so much to get the vote through. The minimal good will it might generate will soon be overtaken by criticism over the more controversial provisions, and it may confirm to those who are opposing the deal that they are right in their convictions.

Trust me, if you think people are howling with rage now - when they see the text of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, they are going to go absolutely berserk.