Tensions heighten as MPs threaten to take back control
Tensions have certainly been running high this week with return of the EU Withdrawal Bill returned to the Commons. And yet when confronted with possibly one of the most important pieces of legislation in 40 years Parliament allocated hardly any time for meaningful debate and scrutiny of the Lords amendments. Crucial issues around devolution and the Irish border amendment were given just 15 minutes of debate.
As the Alliance predicted last week, a significant amount of MPs time was spent in the division lobby not on the floor of the House undertaking the much needed scrutiny of technical amendments. These amendments would have improved the bill’s overall aim of providing legal certainty, afforded Parliament greater scrutiny of delegated legislation and put significant restraints on the breathtaking Henry VIII powers. As the amendments were voted down, one after the other, it felt like Parliament were undermining their own authority by effectively saying ‘no’ to more parliamentary scrutiny and sovereignty. BUT, that does not mean it is over yet. The bill goes back to the Lords on Monday and peers could ask the Commons to consider these amendments again. Click here for our very own ping-pong scorecard.
The meaningful vote
As expected, the debate on Tuesday was dominated by the amendment on a meaningful vote. The context of this is important. Remember that this was the only defeat inflicted on the Government the first time the bill was in the Commons ( the Grieve amendment) . This was subsequently amended by the House of Lords in April allowing Parliament to decide the next steps in the event that MPs reject the Brexit deal, in other words, an actual meaningful vote on the final deal.
Ahead of the key debate on Tuesday, the Government tabled an alternative to the Lords’ meaningful vote amendment. Although described as such, this was hardly a concession. It merely required a minister to publish a written statement 28 days after the vote, explaining how the Government proposes to proceed in relation to negotiations with the EU. Unlock Democracy has rightly described this amendment as “tearing out the heart of Parliament’s meaningful vote”. Cleary it did not satisfy Tory rebels such Dominic Grieve who tabled an alternative to the Government’s alternative to the Lords amendment (confusing, I know).
Dramatic scenes took place in the Commons on Tuesday, which saw Dominic Grieve and Solicitor General Robert Buckland negotiate on the substance of Grieve’s own meaningful vote amendment on the floor of the House and the rebels then subsequently leaving to speak to May ten minutes before the voting began. The conversation with May resulted in the Government promising concessions ( allegedly) and MPs backed the Government on the meaningful vote by 324 to 298 votes.
As it currently stands the Government has indicated it may accept 5(a) and 5(b) of Grieve’s amendment. This sets out that there must be a motion in the Commons to seek approval of the Government’s approach (5a) and if no agreement has been reached with EU by 30 November, the Government would have to give MPs the chance to vote on a motion saying what should happen next (5b).
It is 5 (c) that is the sticking point. And it is this that will be the deal breaker or not as it legislates for a binding vote by parliament if the Government has failed get a deal by February 2019 (in contrast to 5(a) and 5 (b). The Government has said that they will table an amendment when the bill goes back into the Lords on Monday (likely to be published Friday). But for the rebels to be satisfied as Dominic Grieve said on Tuesday, the Government has to offer a concession that “provide a mechanism whereby if there is no deal, must come to this House”.
The thrust of the Government's argument has been that this amendment will tie the Government hands in the negotiations. However at the heart of this amendment is who is the final arbiter on Brexit decisions - parliament or the executive. Given that this is a minority government having to deal with the most complex piece of legislation for over 40 years it is no wonder that parliament is trying to reassert itself.
The government may have bought off the Tory rebels but it appears this may be temporary. Richard Newby, Lib Dem Leader in the House of Lords said yesterday “There is zero chance of the Lords supporting any amendment which does not give Parliament a proper and meaningful vote on all the options available at the end of the Brexit negs - deal or no deal”. Today the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) joined a growing list of unions and civil society groups calling for a People's Vote on the final Brexit Deal.
Mays inability to handle the meaningful vote has wider political implications beyond the Tory party in Westminster, watch for more unions and civil society groups coming out for Peoples Vote in the next few days unless the government give real concessions.
One thing is certain - leaders of both Labour and Tory party end the week weaker. May’s authority called into question and Corbyn's dented with 75 MP’s ignoring his plea to abstain on the EEA amendment (15 voted against, while six quit their frontbench roles). Meanwhile Leader of the SNP, Ian Blackford MP has said that following the Government's decision to not have a debate on the devolution clauses “a line has now been crossed”.
There is emerging a potential constitutional crisis with devolved nations that politicians would do well to heed. This will continue well beyond the EU Withdrawal Bill. Indeed issues with Northern Ireland and the border will be revisited with the Customs Bill and the Agricultural Bill (because of Common Agricultural Policy) - both expected before Summer recess at the end of July.
MPs reject the Charter & enhanced protection of equality and employment rights
Much of the debate on Wednesday was dominated by the Lords amendments on customs union and EEA. There were also concerns around environmental protection and human rights, but given the limited time for debate, these issues did not get the scrutiny they deserve. A number of Lords amendments went a long way in protecting fundamental rights and standards, so its massively disappointing that MPs rejected amendments that would have kept the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in the bill and enhanced the protection of equality, employment and consumer rights. It’s worth bearing in mind that these amendments were rejected by very slim majority and that’s thanks to Alliance members who have worked tirelessly to protect rights and standards. This is not the end, we will continue fighting for keeping our rights and protections post-Brexit.
Parliament vote in favour for continued North-South Cooperation and prevention of new border arrangements
Another thing that went unnoticed on Tuesday was that Parliament a Government amendment in lieu which amends the Lords’ clause on North-South cooperation. The changes are vaguer than the original Lords amendment and leave room for the possibility other forms of checks and controls. But it is a significant improvement as the original bill gave no legal guarantees of the Belfast Agreement or the commitment to avoid a hard border.