7 Feb 2017

Brexit Bill – Government passes moment of maximum danger

The Government has minimised a Tory rebellion by offering Parliament a final vote on the Brexit dealBut MPs would have to choose between the deal – or no deal.

Demonstrators hold anti-Brexit and anti-US President Donald Trump placards as they protest outside Downing street in London on February 4, 2017. (Photo by Jay Shaw Baker/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The government has fought off the most dangerous of amendments to the Article 50 Bill by a majority of 33. That number, they hope, will subdue the inevitable attempt at amendments in the Lords.

Tory Brexit-sceptic opposition all but crumbled. Only seven Tories voted against the government line after the government promised a vote before the Brexit deal is signed off. Last night the rebels talked of having 22 in their number.

A lot of Labour MPs think Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Sir Keir Starmer rather jumped the gun in joining in the Tory rebels’ welcome for the government’s “huge concession” on Article 50 which triggered the collapse of the Tory rebellion.

Opposition MPs and rebel Tories had been hoping to get the promise of a vote that satisfied two key requirements:

(1) It must happen before the European Parliament starts its ratification process,

(2) It must amount to an opportunity to veto the negotiated deal and send the PM back to negotiate something else instead.

By conceding only “requirement (1)” and not “requirement (2)” the government looks like it has conceded nothing much of consequence.

Sir Keir Starmer argues that he now has a commitment to both the Exit deal and the new EU/UK relationship being voted on and a commitment to a vote, in his mind, probably after the Summer recess of 2018.

One of the Tory rebels, former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, insisted that he’d extracted something “very significant” from the government. Labour’s former minister and former No. 10 aide Pat McFadden said No. 10 was already briefing that the government had done no more than confirm the timing of the future vote.

Pat McFadden and many other Labour MPs believe that all the government is conceding is the date on which it will hold a gun to parliament’s head, the date on which it offers a vote on “deal or no deal,” sign up to the proposals as negotiated or you give up on the negotiations and fall back on WTO trade terms.

On 17th January, after Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech on Europe, Sir Keir Starmer told the Commons that Theresa May had avoided Hard Brexit. Behind him, dumbfounded Labour MPs were baffled that he seemed to have missed what struck them as a very Hard Brexit indeed.

Ken Clarke said this afternoon that the government should write down a firmer commitment in the form of an amendment when the Bill goes to the Lords. But the truth is that the government has been determined to try get comfortable majorities in the Commons in order to scare off some potential rebels in the Lords. It will not be up for tabling an amendment to its own in the Lords along the lines Tory rebels would like.

Chris Leslie told MPs this debate was very likely MPs’ “last opportunity” to have any real influence on the shape of Brexit.

Sir Bill Cash ended his speech attacking those backing any amendments: “They’re trying to delay and obstruct … shame on you.” Tim Farron followed him saying he admired Sir Bill’s decades long dogged battle for a cause he believes in and he fully intended to match that doggedness now that he was on the losing side.

If they wanted to replicate dogged Sir Bill, the Brexit-sceptics needed to muster greater commitment than that. Fresh from the shock defeat in June and cosseted by decades of being on the establishment/winning side, they didn’t have the skills base, menace, cunning or will to act.

With Labour confirming it will back the measure as a whole, this amendment was, as one government whip put it, “the moment of maximum danger,” when Labour, other opposition parties and Tory rebels might coalesce. That moment of danger has now passed.

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