Last week saw the Supreme Court decree that Parliament would indeed have to be consulted before Britain triggers Article 50. As the Government’s rumoured trigger-date of the 9th of March draws closer, the pace has quickened in Parliament. The Second Reading now complete, the UK is ‘in the departure lounge’ awaiting Brexit take-off, as the BBC’s political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg put it last night.
The powers granted by the Supreme Court gave Parliament the authority to trigger Article 50. Wanting to avoid a long drawn out process, the Government’s published the ‘EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Act. A short, simple bill, which gives the Prime Minister permission to pull the trigger. Labour has tabled amendments that would force Theresa May to commit to giving MPs a vote before any final deal is agreed upon. Downing Street is however feeling fairly confident that they will be able to implement Article 50 as and when it chooses.
Labour faces more internal problems as a result of this bill. The Party issued a three-line whip, asserting they would not ‘frustrate the process’. Yet many Labour MPs felt disconcerted by Theresa May steering Britain towards a hard break from the EU, with 47 voting against the Bill last night; echoing Ken Clarke’s sentiment that they must follow their conscience by maintaining their faith in the EU.
Even more disconcerting for Corbyn, was that four members of his front bench team have resigned over the issue already, with the possibility of more to follow. Corbyn may well regret imposing a three-line whip on a bill which the majority of Labour MPs probably would have supported, regardless of his whip. The alternative though, had there been a free vote, was that enough moderate Labour MPs might have sided with the SNP and Lib Dems to make for a closer outcome. In that instance Labour would have looked even more disunited over the issue of Brexit.
Nonetheless, despite uniform SNP opposition as well as Labour dissent, the bill passed. It also seems unlikely going forward that any major amendments, such as the Lib Dem call for a second referendum, are likely to survive to the final draft. The Labour Party may have seen a modest uprising but most will be aware that 65% of Labour voters in 2015 voted leave just 7 months ago. Seven in ten Labour MPs represent a constituency where the majority voted to leave the European Union. As for the Conservatives, pro-European MPs having won a concession over the publication of a white paper, are unlikely to rebel further.
At this stage, most MPs, seem to have put preference on the upkeep of British democracy, rather than single market membership. In latter stages of the bill however, MPs may use membership of the single market as a reason for blocking the bill. On this issue, there is still scope for a challenge to Government, whilst Europhilic MPs will have to consider whether it’s more important to make a decision that makes democratic or economic sense.
Nevertheless, all is not yet won for the Government. Yesterday, the former British representative to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, described Brexit as ‘a negotiation on a scale we haven’t experienced since WW2’. His comments suggested the Government have underestimated the mission ahead. Getting an agreement with Parliament is one thing, but coming to some kind of consensus with the European Union may yet be a far more Herculean challenge.