Mark Harper is a former Chief Whip, and is MP for the Forest of Dean.
Parliament, always a place where history is made, is taking epoch defining decisions this month. During its first few days last week, the Commons took an important first vote on an historic piece of legislation, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, that will allow the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50 and begin the process of the UK leaving the European Union. This week, the Bill returns to face the next round of scrutiny – a Committee of the Whole House, and then a vote on the Third Reading.
Some people thought the issue of our future in the EU had been settled with the Referendum. And indeed the decision on whether to leave or remain was taken on 23rd June last year. But the smooth passage of legislation through Parliament to deliver that decision faces potential complication from a raft of legal tangles and amendments.
And with Labour’s leadership in total chaos about their attitude towards the Bill, Brexit and indeed any issue about which the British people care, there is an irresistible temptation for Labour backbenchers to use amendments to articulate views on Brexit that their leadership will not.
Many of these amendments will be thought through. Some may even seem superficially appealing. But be in no doubt – the complication of this straightforward Bill with amendments and additions is totally unnecessary and potentially damaging to the negotiation ahead and the success of our exit.
The Bill as it stands accomplishes one simple and important thing: establishing the right of the Government to carry out the will of the people as expressed in the Referendum, carried out with the overwhelming support of Parliament.
As such, it allows the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50 and begin negotiations with the remaining 27 countries to determine the terms of our departure from the European Union and the constructive new partnership we seek with them afterwards.
What clarification can possibly be needed for a short two clause Bill which achieves such a simple but vital outcome? The commitment to allowing proper Parliamentary scrutiny of the terms of our exit has already been made – with regular votes and a Great Repeal Bill to provide a process; a determination to avoid a cliff edge upon the termination of our membership and assumption of a new arrangement – last month the Prime Minister spoke of her willingness to ensure a smooth process of implementation where it is required; our commitment to the workers’ rights (where in many areas UK law already goes further than the minimum standards required by the EU) legislated by the EU is unshakeable; and the Government’s plan for Brexit has been published in a White Paper that gives MPs and the public the chance to review twelve negotiating objectives and four important principles – to provide certainty, build a stronger Britain, make our country fairer, and create a truly Global Britain.
In the face of such clarity, the real motivation of those who seek to tie the Article 50 Bill up with amendments is clear: to bind the hands of the Government in the negotiation; to try to find a way to keep us inside the European Union via a side door; or to frustrate or delay the process of our departure. All would fly in the face of the vote the public delivered last year to leave the EU.
Regardless of how they voted in the Referendum, the British public wants to see us get on with the job of leaving the EU and begin the process of negotiation. The Government has provided a timetable: to trigger Article 50 by the end of March and begin two years of negotiation. The Prime Minister has provided a blueprint for Brexit – in a Lancaster House speech that reassured markets and expressed the whole country’s determination for the right deal abroad. Now it’s time for Parliament to vote on the trigger to let it happen.
The truth is: amendments aren’t needed. The public expect us to get cracking and get the negotiation underway. Last week’s vote gave the whole country a glimpse of a united future: MPs putting party divides and the false language of Leave and Remain behind them, and observing the instruction given to them by the public in the Referendum last year. This week, I hope that colleagues will recognise that honouring that referendum result means sending the Article 50 Bill to the Lords with no strings, or amendments, attached.