Andrew Grice / Jun 2018
After a tortuous journey through the UK Parliament, the EU (Withdrawal) Act has finally become law. The measure revokes the 1972 European Communities Act which took Britain into the Common Market and, ironically, transposes all EU legislation into UK law so the Government has time to decide whether to keep, improve or dump it, a task that civil servants believe could take 10 years.
The Bill’s passage was a symbolic moment for Brexiteers. But it is only the first in a long queue of measures, including tricky legislation on customs, trade, immigration and fisheries. Ministers fret about their race against the clock of exit day on 29 March, 2019. Parliament will also vote on a motion and Bill to implement the withdrawal agreement or, alternatively, on whether to halt a cliff-edge departure if no deal is reached with the EU.
During debates on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, much time and energy was expended on how much say Parliament will have on the withdrawal agreement. In the Government’s only significant defeat, pro-EU Conservatives joined forces with opposition parties last December to secure a “meaningful vote.” During the Bill’s final stages this month, an attempt to strengthen that by putting the Commons in the driving seat if no deal is reached was made by the House of Lords -- one of 15 amendments it passed against the Government’s wishes. The aim was to prevent May offering MPs a Hobson’s choice of her deal or no deal because the two-year Article 50 process runs out next March. Pro-EU Tories thought they had secured a compromise in talks with May, but it was blocked by David Davis, the pugnacious Brexit Secretary, who threatened to resign if Parliament was given the whip hand. In the end, most of the “rebel” Tory MPs blinked first and May avoided defeat.
However, the debate highlighted the strong opposition to a “no deal” exit across the parties and there is a growing sense among MPs they would find a way to halt one. The Act requires the Government to make a Commons statement if no agreement is reached by 21 January.
Hardline Brexiteers had little time to celebrate the measure reaching the statute book; they know that bigger battles now loom. They fear May will win approval for a softer version of Brexit when the Cabinet meets at her Chequers country retreat on 6 July. It might include a single market for goods, a customs arrangement for the foreseeable future, a continuing role for the European Court of Justice and possibly even something close to free movement for EU workers with a UK job to go to. That would mean blurring May’s red lines in a long overdue White Paper on the future relationship to be published the following week. Proposing such close links with the EU might even spark the resignation of one or more ministers, with Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, the front-runner. Other Brexiteers, such as Michael Gove, are prepared to cut May some slack, get Brexit “over the line” next March and allow a future government to diverge further.
After the White Paper, battle will resume in Parliament. The pro-EU Tories have a chance to vote for a customs union when the Commons debates a much-postponed Trade Bill in July. On paper, there are enough votes to defeat the Government. But May hopes her “customs arrangement” will win over enough Tory Europhiles to avoid defeat. Labour now has little confidence this group will stand firm on a customs union or when Parliament votes on any deal. The pro-EU Tories insists they will do what is right for the country but will again come under enormous pressure to toe the party line.
Jeremy Corbyn is expected to resist demands from his own party to back single market membership and a referendum on the deal. But Labour will almost certainly vote against May’s agreement. Corbyn’s top priority is to secure a general election but he will likely be disappointed. Even if Parliament rejected May’s agreement, the likelihood is that she would resign but the Tories would manage to avoid a general election, as the Fixed-term Parliaments Act requires two-thirds of MPs to vote for an early election, or the Government to lose a confidence vote. Both look unlikely.
Many hurdles lie ahead—not least persuading the EU to buy May’s softer version of Brexit. But the Prime Minister has proved more resilient than her critics expected and many MPs believe she will somehow defy them again by securing a deal and then Parliament’s grudging support for it.