This week the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill passed through all the Commons stages by a final vote of 494 to 122.
It now goes to the Lords for consideration where there could be attempts to amend it.
However Theresa May is on track to maintain her timetable to have the Bill passed into law in time to meet her 31st March 2017 deadline to notify the EU formally of the UK’s intention to withdraw from membership. The famous triggering of Article 50 of the relevant Treaty.
The triggering of Article 50 is the critical event because the process of withdrawal becomes to all intents and purposes unstoppable. The now well known two year period provided in that article is in fact a final deadline.
Regardless of whether an agreement has been made or not, the UK will cease to have EU membership on the 31st March 2019. That is the technical position; it is also the declared stance of the Prime Minister, Theresa May, in her recent speech outlining her negotiating position, repeated in the White Paper.
The fact that the Commons has approved the Bill unamended makes it both morally and politically risky for the Lords to interfere. The Bill passed each of its main hurdles comfortably by votes of 498 to 114 on 2nd Reading, by 496 to 111 on coming out of Committee and by a final vote of 494 to 122 at 3rd Reading whence it goes to the Lords where the First Reading [a formality] has already been made.
It will pass through the same stages as in the Commons, namely First, 2nd, Committee, Report and Third Reading.
Several amendments were tabled during its passage through the Commons, but all were defeated by a majority for the government of between 45 and 50 votes. One particular amendment was defeated by a dramatic majority of 307.
It was the attempt by Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Leader to require a 2nd referendum on the result of the Government’s exit negotiations. The amendment was the most blatant attempt to frustrate the result of June 23rd 2016 to Leave the EU. Significantly 250 of those MPs habitually voting against the government during the course of the various amendment proposals abstained. The vote was 340 against Farron’s amendment with just 33 votes for.
This is the background of a Bill going from the elected House of Commons to the unelected House of Lords for further consideration. It is a two clause Bill simply confirming the power the government believed it already had and which former Prime Minister and Remain voter David Cameron had pledged to use immediately a Leave vote was known.
The House of Lords is in a weak position to meddle with the Bill. But there are 102 declared Liberal Democrat peers there and noises have been made about continuing to interfere with the Brexit process.
There are however 805 peers in all including 252 Conservatives, 203 Labour [both parties officially pledged to back the Bill] and 178 Cross Benchers [supposedly non aligned]. And in any case, the government can resort to the creation of peers if the need arise. That would have to be a position of constitutional crisis which the average Lord would not wish to see, especially in view of the popular vote of June 23rd.
So this may prove to be just as noisy as all the fuss about the Commons votes, with much media attention given to those who rebel against the Referendum result.
As was pointed out during the Commons debates on this Bill, there is to be another Bill – the Great Repeal Bill – coming forward this year.
That Bill will
- repeal the 1972 accession Act which took us in and made a conduit for EU law direct into our law;
- bring over into domestic law all existing EU law so securing the various Rights which were the supposed basis of the High Court and Supreme Court hearings [this was known at the time the original case was brought !]; and
- enable ministers to make necessary house keeping arrangements to smooth the Brexit process.
There is therefore yet another opportunity for MPs and Lords to consider the implications and concerns around Brexit, and to propose amendments.
The Lords are scheduled to consider the present Bill on the 20th and 21st of February, the 27th of February and 1st of March in Committee and finally on the 7th March.
We should, then, have a definitive answer by the 8th March as to the fate of this Bill and the Prime Minister’s declared timetable for notification by 31st March 2017.