The hype over the return of the EU Withdrawal Bill to the Commons next Tuesday is already at 11 on a 10-point scale. Some speculate that it could be the end of Theresa May’s premiership; or that it could mean another general election. The Political Betting website has described it as the biggest vote since the Norway debate, which brought down Neville Chamberlain and put Winston Churchill in power.
Labour are trying to put pressure on the prime minister by condemning her for forcing through such important votes, on reversing 15 amendments made by the House of Lords to the bill, in one day, which could mean the House sitting long past midnight.
There is no question that she could be weakened further if she loses any of the votes. But she is weak already and has survived this far. The defeats she is likely to suffer are survivable and, whatever the anonymous grumbling on the Conservative backbenches, it is hard to see how there could be a majority among Tory MPs for deposing her.
Let us go through the three important votes. There is likely to be a vote to reverse the Lords amendment demanding that Britain stay in the EEA. That means staying in the single market, like Norway, and accepting free movement of people. The government should win that vote comfortably because Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t support it. Even if he did, many Labour MPs such as Ed Miliband and Caroline Flint wouldn’t vote for it either: they think Brexit must mean the end of free movement.
The second important vote is likely to be on a customs union. Here the Lords and the Labour front bench are united. They want Britain to apply the EU’s common external tariff, benefit from EU trade deals, and don’t care if it restricts the deals that Liam Fox, international trade secretary, can negotiate with other countries.
Crucially, this is supported by enough Tory MPs to defeat the government. They may not choose to do so at this point, however, because the Lords amendment wouldn’t force Theresa May to do anything. It merely requires her to report on her efforts to secure a customs union. “I haven’t made any” would meet that requirement.
It would look bad to lose that vote, and it would suggest the government might be forced to accept a customs union later in the Brexit negotiations. But the prime minister would live to fight another day and hope to persuade her divided party that she has a customs plan that would work.
The third vote is the most serious. It would be on the Lords amendment requiring a “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal. It is ironic that its supporters call it a “meaningful vote” because so few people seem to know what it means. There already is a provision for a meaningful vote in the bill, inserted by Dominic Grieve, the pro-European Tory rebel, when the government was defeated in the Commons in December. But it is a simple clause requiring parliament’s approval in the form of a statute.
The Lords amendment is more complicated, setting a series of deadlines for the Brexit negotiations, starting with 18 November, after which the government “must follow any direction in relation to the negotiations … approved by a resolution of the House of Commons”. It seeks to take over control of the negotiations from the government and, although its effects are not clear, it would probably restrict May’s room for manoeuvre as the talks approach the final phase.
That is the vote to watch. If the government loses it, May would probably struggle on, playing an ever-weaker hand in Brussels. But it is not obvious that a more resolute Brexiter such as Michael Gove would be in a better position, although he might be able to talk a better game. The bottom line remains that there is a majority in the Commons for a slightly softer Brexit than May has so far offered, and that she, or whoever replaces her, would be forced in that direction anyway.
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