The Bill to move Article 50 passed through the Commons with only one Conservative vote against on Second Reading (Ken Clarke’s). That measure was about whether the referendum result should be honoured and Brexit take place. That referendum produced the biggest single vote for anything in British history. Second Reading was carried by a majority of 384 votes, Third Reading by a majority of 382 votes. The Bill went through Parliament without a single amendment being added.
The EU Withdrawal Bill passed with no Tory votes against at all on both Second Reading and Third. It is not about whether Brexit should happen – the Commons had already, when these votes occured, backed the principle of leaving the EU by an overwhelming majority, as we have seen. Nor is it even about the practice of Brexit: whether it should be soft or hard, quick or slow. Rather, it is, as Iain Duncan Smith and Amber Rudd write in today’s Daily Telegraph, about ensuring “legal certainty at our point of departure”. The core of their case that the country must have a fully functioning statute book from day one, and that this is what the Bill will deliver.
In the course of doing so, they argue, as we do above, that the Commons has already agreed the principle of Brexit, and that Conservative MPs have unanimously backed making it orderly in legal terms. They say that Government has since added amendments in the Lords that would strengthen the Bill, but that peers have added some that would weaken it. In particular, they have pop at the so-called “meaningful vote” amendment, suggesting that it is otiose, since MPs are already set to vote on any final deal. They add that the Government has now guaranteed such a vote by tabling new amendments to be debated this week which would write it into law.
Their article moves towards its end by pointing out that the Commons, having already agreed the principle of Brexit, will have other opportunities debate and decide how it is carried out practice, citing bills on trade, agriculture, customs and immigration to come. Rudd and Duncan Smith close with a traditional appeal to Party loyalty: “Jeremy Corbyn will do everything he can to stop us. That includes cynically trying to frustrate the Brexit process for his own political ends…So it behoves us all to demonstrate discipline and unity of purpose in support of the Prime Minister”.
It is a classic opening move in the game of bluff and double-bluff opened up by the return of the Bill to the Commons on Tuesday and Wednesday – planned, doubtless, by Downing Street and the Whips. We read that the Government is determined to resist all the Lords amendments. We shall see. There has always been room to improve the Bill by ensuring the right balance between executive action and legislative scrutiny. It may be that Ministers offer more concessions on this aspect of it this week. What is certain is that there is no public momentum behind reversing the referendum result, and that however they voted most people now want it to be honoured.
Caroline Flint tweeted yesterday: “At my first surgery of seven scheduled in Don Valley yesterday – yet again I’m asked “Why is it taking so long to leave the EU?” She and her fellow Labour MPs should bear that thought in mind this week, particularly if it comes to votes on customs, since leaving the Customs Union is an integral part of leaving the EU. Conservative MPs have an additional responsibility not to strengthen the EU’s negotiating position. Btu for all MPs, the main challenge is broader. They have a responsibility not to undermine the very principle of Brexit by backing measures that pave a way for its reversal. That is the effect of the meaningful vote amendment.
How the whips and Downing Street handle potential rebels is a matter best judged by them. All that can be added is that Tory MPs stood on a manifesto that promised both the delivery of Brexit and a bill to make it orderly – see pages 35 to 37. Unless they stood on manifestos to the contrary, they are bound by both commitments. It would not be out of order for the whip to be removed from those in breach of them. We don’t have a view on applying the sanction, at least yet. We simply point out that it is available.