In Depth

Brexit: what are MPs voting on and will the Government lose?

Two-day debate over bill amendment may dictate Theresa May’s political future

The EU Withdrawal Bill returns to the House of Commons today for 48 hours of votes on Lords amendments that may prove crucial to the stability of Theresa May’s government.

The pro-Brexit newspapers are leaving their readers under no illusions about the importance of the next two days, with The Sun’s front page declaring that Tory rebels could “destroy their prime minister, their government and the Brexit the 17.4 million majority voted for”. The Daily Express features an image of a Union Flag and the warning: “Ignore the will of the people at your peril.”

May addressed Conservative backbenchers yesterday to make a plea for unity. At a meeting of the backbench 1922 Committee, she told MPs to consider the signal it would send to the EU if the Government was defeated.

“We must think about the message Parliament will send to the European Union this week,” she said. “I am trying to negotiate the best deal for Britain...

“But if the Lords amendments are allowed to stand, that negotiating position will be undermined.”

What’s happened so far?

The Bill first appeared in the Commons last year, when the Government suffered a narrow defeat on an amendment giving MPs a so-called “meaningful” vote on any deal that May strikes in Brussels. In April and May of this year, the House of Lords passed 15 changes to the legislation, in “scenes of untypical fractiousness on the sedate red benches”, says The Times.

It is these 15 changes that are to be voted on now. This afternoon MPs will consider the legal aspects of Brexit, including the meaningful vote amendment. They will then debate and hold further votes this evening on issues related to devolution. Tomorrow’s six-hour session covers policy issues, with two notable votes on Britain’s membership of the customs union and the European Economic Area (EEA).

What are the key amendments to look out for?

The issues causing the Government the most discomfort are “familiar to Brexit watchers: customs and the question of how and in what way Parliament is given a say on the eventual deal Theresa May secures in Brussels negotiations,” says The Times.

The Government is particularly worried about the meaningful vote amendment, “which as it stands would effectively hand control of the Brexit process to Parliament if MPs reject the final Brexit deal later this year”, says Politico’s Jack Blanchard.

Brexiteers “have been terrified at that prospect, fearing - perhaps rightly - that it could be used to stop the entire Brexit process”, he explains.

Labour backs the amendment, with shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer making the case in an article for The Guardian. “This is the most important week of the Brexit process since the triggering of Article 50,” he writes. “After months of dithering, delay and government splits, there is a chance for Parliament decisively to shape the course of the negotiations.”

In an attempt to break the deadlock, arch-Remainer Dominic Grieve, one of the leading Tory rebels, has tabled a new 11th-hour amendment on the issue. Grieve told BBC Newsnight that his compromise would mean that should the final deal be voted down, the Government would then have until the middle of February 2019 to win Parliament’s approval. Only if that fails would Parliament then decide the next steps.

But Brexit Secretary David Davis hinted this morning that the Government was not prepared to give Parliament any further control over the negotiation process, saying it would put the UK at a disadvantage in negotiations, reports The Guardian.

“You have to maintain alternatives that the other side may not want as well. Europe does not want no deal,” Davis told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

What about the customs union amendment?

Downing Street had also been anxious about the Lords’ attempt to force ministers to set out a plan that would keep Britain in the customs union, but “a last-minute compromise resulted in leading rebel Nicky Morgan switching sides to support a rival amendment which commits Britain to negotiating a new customs ‘arrangement’ instead”, says The Times’s Matt Chorley.

This might now “be referred to as the ‘meaningless’ vote”, says Sky News’s Faisal Islam. “It has no policy implication other than giving the PM a freer hand ahead of the EU summit.”

And the other changes to the Bill?

The other amendments are expected “to be easily rejected by the Commons”, says The Times. Of the rest, one mandating that the UK stays in the EEA “will be interesting only for the size of the Labour rebellion”, says Politico’s Blanchard.

When will it all be over?

Following the next 48 hours of voting, the Bill returns to the Lords next Monday. Peers “will look at the amendments that have been defeated in the Commons and will then decide whether they should be sent back to the Commons again for reconsideration”, says The Times.

However, “by the end of the next week, the end should be close and the Withdrawal Bill will finally become law”, the newspaper adds.

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