Now, on to the Lords
After more than 80 hours of debate and more than 500 amendments and new clauses, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill cleared the Commons this week, and will now pass for its second reading in the Lords on 30th and 31st January. Having only experienced one defeat on the Bill during the eight days allocated for its scrutiny, the Government has suffered less at the hands of the ‘mutineers’ than previously anticipated. Yet the difficulties of getting the legislation through the Lords without significant amendments has not been underestimated, with the weight of 197 Labour, 100 Lib Dem and 183 Crossbench peers looking threatening against 248 Conservatives.
It would be wise to put money on the Bill entering ‘ping pong’ after the Lords make their amendments to it, meaning that the amended Bill will go back and forth between the two Houses until agreement is reached. What’s less predictable is who would cave first in the event of an impasse – would the Government concede, or use the Parliament Acts to pass the Bill without the Lords’ consent in the next parliamentary session? Or would the Lords give in to prevent accusations of an unelected chamber holding back a democratic decision?
How long will this go on for?
As part of the closing debates around the Withdrawal Bill, the former Education Secretary Justine Greening made her first intervention since quitting the frontbenches. Greening used the moment pretty effectively, warning that a Brexit deal that doesn’t work for young people will “not be sustainable” and will be undone by future generations of politicians and voters. Immediately after her resignation commentators noted that Greening’s strongly pro-EU constituents, and her personal convictions, would motivate her to be a Morgan-esque thorn in the Government’s side, and this opening move does not disappoint. But the suggestion that the next generation could still be arguing over Brexit is enough to make most people groan.
May and Macron
Theresa May’s diplomacy continues to be put to the test even after the Withdrawal Bill has passed the Commons, with a summit with the French President Emmanuel Macron this week. The visit has not been short of interesting headlines, from a UK commitment to an additional £44 million for security at the Channel-Calais border, to an assurance from one of Macron’s aides that if the UK changed its mind about Brexit the country would be welcomed back with open arms. Donald Tusk coincidentally told the UK this week that it could still return to the EU if it changed its mind about Brexit – are they trying to drop a hint?
However, May’s offer of money for the border and RAF support for French counter-terrorism work in Mali – and France’s loan of an old bit of cloth – come across as gestures of friendship aimed at post-Brexit cooperation. The UK and France are currently regarded as fairly equal powers within Europe, and May will not want an emboldened Macron to assert dominance as the UK becomes more distant from the continent.
Coinciding with the visit, the man charged with getting banks to move from the UK to France after Brexit, Christian Noyer, has suggested that Brexit won’t be a “catastrophe” for the City of London, because London was more important than Paris in the financial world 20 years ago. Perhaps Noyer is confused and thinks it’s still 1998, when China – now the EU’s second-biggest trading partner – wasn’t the world’s second largest-economy or even in the World Trade Organisation. When we’re coming closer to the 2020s, it seems somewhat misjudged to base an assumption on global financial centres on what was happening in the last millennium.
Come on Corbyn
Nicola Sturgeon has published revised analysis of the economic impact of Brexit on Scotland, with a warning that leaving the single market could cost Scotland £16 billion and a call for those opposed to Brexit to stand firm on the UK staying in the single market to prevent this. Of course, this comes back round to the fact that Jeremy Corbyn is widely suspected of being anti-EU and is thus ruling out single market membership, which Sturgeon labelled a “ridiculous position.” It doesn’t seem terribly likely that Corbyn will be picking up the phone any time soon to assemble the single market coalition that Sturgeon wants though, given that’s what his own MPs and large numbers of Labour voters have been advocating for 18 months already.
Don’t forget about Wales!
Given that Wales doesn’t have the same level of independence tensions as Scotland and Northern Ireland, its thoughts on Brexit seem to have been left behind for the Government because they won’t trigger another constitutional crisis. Or they were, until this week. The Plaid Cymru Welsh Assembly Member Steffan Lewis tabled a motion this week, which was passed by his colleagues, calling for a Continuity Bill to transfer powers currently held by the EU to Wales, rather than Westminster, after March 2019. As the Government had promised to introduce a similar proposal in the Withdrawal Bill this week, but instead pushed it to the Lords, AMs from all parties have been angered by the neglect of Welsh interests – Carwyn Jones called it a “fundamental assault on devolution.” So that it seems that if the Government isn’t careful it may end up with three angry devolved nations on its hands, all of which hold a stake in their grasp on power in Westminster.
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