Within the next two years, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May must get parliament’s approval to kickstart Britain’s withdrawal, convert all EU law into U.K. law, introduce an immigration bill restricting freedom of movement from the Continent and negotiate a divorce deal with Brussels that doesn’t wreck the economy or spark a fresh bid for Scottish independence.
Even assuming she is able to strike a deal with 27 EU leaders, May must ensure her 328 MPs keep discipline throughout the process and do not break ranks to back pro-EU wrecking amendments or hardline Brexit rebellions designed to force her hand.
Ameet Gill, former director of strategy for the previous Prime Minister David Cameron, said: “From my experience, working for the leader of the Conservative Party, you never want to put anything with Europe in its title — or anything Europe-related — on the floor of the House of Commons because you know what the Tory party is like on this.”
And that’s before the House of Lords is added into the mix.
In a series of conversations with POLITICO, senior figures who have worked at the highest levels of government said May’s strategy for engaging parliament was a recipe for chaos and warned of dramatic late-night votes, knife-edge results, sudden rebellions and unexpected government climb-downs in a drama that will shape British politics for years to come.
While things may get progressively harder, May is unlikely to face trouble firing the starting gun.
Even if the Supreme Court backs the High Court’s ruling that parliamentary approval is necessary to trigger Article 50, which formally begins the withdrawal process, she is almost certain to win a parliamentary vote.
In a mark of just how far British politics has shifted since June’s referendum, many MPs who initially backed remaining in the EU now consider it politically toxic to be seen to be blocking Brexit.
Gill insisted that there aren’t enough MPs or peers willing to vote down May’s plan to start Brexit negotiations by the end of March.
Instead, Gill believes, the PM’s problems will come when the “Great Repeal Bill” — which will scrap the 1972 European Communities Act which took Britain into the EU, while simultaneously transferring all EU law onto the domestic statute book — is put on the floor of the Commons later next year.
Any MP, or member of the House of Lords, can make amendments to bills as they travel through parliament. Each must be backed by both houses — so one simple amendment can cause chaos if a government can’t get majority backing among MPs or Lords. If those proposing an amendment can build momentum around their cause, the government could be in trouble.
As soon as the bill is laid before MPs, Gill said, Euroskeptics will seize the opportunity to attach amendments to annul Brussels regulations they dislike, rather than accept the entire gamut of EU law in one fell swoop.
On the other side of the aisle, Labour, Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrat MPs will try to protect anything they believe is under threat in the divorce, attaching clauses ensuring, for instance, continued access to the single market.
“The most difficult issue they face on this is this potential single market amendment. Full membership of the single market,” he said.
Such a potent amendment could be put down by senior figures such as former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg or former Labour leader Ed Miliband and quickly gain traction among pro-EU MPs from across the Commons, including some Tories.
Although he was on the other side of the referendum debate, Gill’s business partner Paul Stephenson, also a Cameron aide who worked on contentious legislation for the former prime minister and then advised the official Leave campaign, agreed the passage of Brexit through parliament could be extremely complex for May. He foresaw trouble coming from Brexiteers as much as from Remainers.
“We could get into the situation where you have article 50 triggered next year, and a year later it becomes very clear that we’re not going to get a very good deal, and the Europeans aren’t playing ball, the economy is getting a bit uncertain and actually there’s an argument to be — which the Leavers could make — which is let’s end this facade of the negotiation now, put down some amendments saying let’s just scrap the [European Court of Auditors] now and go straight to WTO.”
This is all before MPs vote on the final terms of any deal.
Game of chess
Downing Street feels it has no choice but to open this particular can of worms. The case for the bill is “watertight” because Britain cannot be taken out of the EU without repealing the 1972 act. “It’s essential to restore the parliamentary sovereignty that people voted for,” said one Number 10 aide.
The unenviable task of shepherding the Great Repeal Bill through parliament has been left to Brexit Secretary David Davis.
The battle has begun, even before the Great Repeal Act has been drawn up. Former Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps has already proposed an amendment introducing a “sunset clause” on all EU law transferred into domestic legislation, which would force the government to decide which rules it wants to keep and which can be allowed to lapse.
“He’s very unpopular with his Conservative colleagues for that suggestion,” said veteran Tory Euroskeptic MP John Redwood, adding that the proposal has “no support whatsoever” and insisting his hardline allies have no intention of amending the Great Repeal bill. “There’s no way anyone else wants to do that. As far as I am aware — I know all the Euroskeptics very well — we all want a simple, short, principles bill to take back control.”
However, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer told POLITICO he was also gearing up for a major battle. “The idea that there won’t be a real fight amongst Tory MPs on what goes in the bill in the first place is, I think, a bit far-fetched.”
“Once you put a bill like that on the floor of the house then anybody can put down an amendment and there will be many people who will want to put down amendments — either adding or certainly taking away,” he said.
He warned that he would be “watching like a hawk” for any attempt to sneak through changes giving the government the power to alter current EU law without a full vote in the Commons.
May’s battles at home are only just beginning.
Author: Tom McTague