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1 February 2017updated 15 Feb 2017 3:19pm

MPs risk missing their last chance to shape Theresa May’s Brexit deal

Once Article 50 is triggered, parliament will be marginalised.

By Stephen Bush

After countless briefings, two Prime Ministerial speeches on Brexit, a court case and an appeal, MPs got the chance to debate Article 50.

Was it worth it? That the bulk of the Labour party will vote to trigger Article 50 means that the sting has been taken out of the debate somewhat, which is probably one reason why most of the speakers confined themselves to refighting the referendum.

If you were intrigued as to when the Eurosceptics decided we had to leave, then John Redwood, Bill Cash and Iain Duncan Smith all had lovely little stories about when they decided we were better off out. If you want to know what every Liberal Democrat party political broadcast will look like from now until 2020, then Nick Clegg had a neat little preview. And if, like me, you’re just an embattled Remainer who wants to be told one last time that we really ought not to be doing this, then here’s Ken Clarke

What was missing in action: any real sense that the bulk of MPs grasp that this is their last chance to meaningfully limit the Prime Minister as far as our Brexit deal and our constitutional arrangements afterward are concerned. As I explain in greater deal here, many of the powers we’ve pooled (or “surrendered” as the Outers in the audience will prefer) will return not to Parliament but to the sovereign aka whoever the sitting Prime Minister happens to be. Parliament is the only legislature in the democratic world without specific powers to veto, write and amend treaties, though it can delay them and this bill is the last chance saloon as far as limiting Theresa May and her future successors are concerned.

Then there are the various unresolved questions about life after Brexit, not least the rights of EU citizens who are already resident here.  Theresa May has reiterated that she doesn’t want to return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the South. Customs checks on the land border between those two countries will feel significantly harder than they do between Norway and Sweden, or indeed than they would between England and an independent Scotland. But the other alternative: customs checks at ports and other entrepôts will enflame some Unionists too.

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Then there’s the question of whether if MPs don’t like the deal offered by May, rejecting it would see us remain in the European Union while she has another go, or would mean instead exit on WTO terms. There’s the tactical debate about whether the government should find out if it can trigger Article 50 but not Article 127 the EEA Agreement, meaning that if we don’t like the deal we’re offered by the EU we can veto it and have a soft landing into the EEA, guaranteeing a transitional period for British businesses whatever happens between us and the EU27.

Instead, much of the focus is on Labour’s agonies as far as its electoral coalition is concerned. (The latest development in that subplot: Clive Lewis has said he’ll quit the shadow cabinet if Labour’s amendments don’t pass to vote against Article 50. Watch that space.) All of which is good knockabout fun, true. But time is running out for MPs, particularly those MPs who talked a big game about maintaining the Union and parliamentary sovereignty during the referendum, to put that front and centre as far as the Article 50 discussion is concerned.

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