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22 October 2019

What to look out for as parliament votes on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal

A break down of the sections that might cause this Withdrawal Agreement Bill to come unstuck, and the reasons why it could pass anyway. 

By Stephen Bush

The government has published the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, giving MPs (and the rest of us) less than 24 hours to read it before voting begins. So while there may be some vital bits and pieces that I have missed, here’s what, to me, look to be the bits that might cause the Bill to come unstuck:

1) The clauses confirming the continued primacy of EU law during the transition period. While there is a meaningless section later down the bill designed to mollify any worried Brexiteers, it does not change the meaning of this part. However, if I were them I’d grin and bear it because….

2) There is nothing of substance in this bill to allow MPs to prevent a no-deal exit at the end of October 2020. Plus, as written, this deal does an excellent job of making the parliamentary manoeuvres that prevented a no-deal exit in March and October significantly harder to repeat in the future. Coupled to pre-existing mechanisms in the transition period agreed by Theresa May to stop a no-deal exit at the end of next year, the UK would have to agree an extension with the EU in July of 2020 – and, because the EU enters a new budgetary period at the end of 2020, that would involve a huge financial commitment, something that parliament cannot do without the co-operation of the executive.

3) The scant ability given to parliament to scrutinise the free trade agreement negotiations. Ministers will be required to provide updates to parliament, but that’s it. Given the difficulty of of preventing a no-deal Brexit as it stands, if MPs vote this through unamended this will be the last meaningful vote they cast as far as the final shape of Brexit is concerned – it will be a choice between whatever Boris Johnson negotiates or no deal.

4) The attempt to codify parts of the future declaration – the non-binding parts of the exit deal that cover the EU and UK’s aspirations for the future relationship –  would put the UK on course for a low-alignment, low-trade, high regulatory divergence Brexit as envisaged by the Conservative Party’s most committed Brexiteers. (See? I said there was a good reason to just grin and bear the sections about the primacy of EU law during the transition.)

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There are two votes to watch today: the first, the Bill’s second reading (a bill gets its first reading when it is introduced into the House, the second is the first time it is voted on and traditionally a time for MPs to indicate whether they broadly assent to the thrust of the Bill), which is likely to produce a majority unless something goes very wrong for the government.

It’s the vote on the programme motion (the procedure that sets the amount of time put aside to scrutinise a bill) that is worth watching. The various problems that MPs will have with the bill will make it harder to justify voting for it to be debated on the government’s timetable. If you are a Labour rebel, it’s difficult enough to justify voting for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal – not least because if you still hope to have a future within the Labour Party – but doing so in a manner that means he achieves his 31 October deadline only compounds the offence. 

But what may cause those Labour rebels to back it anyway is this: that these items of the bill, particularly that last part about enshrining the future relationship into law, look designed to produce a confrontation with parliament. Despite having got a deal, the government looks like it is still desperately seeking dissolution-by-parliament so that it can fight the “Save Brexit” election it craves. Labour MPs might yet decide that denying them that is a price worth paying for voting through a very hard Brexit.