In my column of 20th November, I ended with a question: do the opponents of BREXIT have the numbers to derail the EU Withdrawal Bill?
On Wednesday that question was answered in the affirmative by a majority of five.
The demand was for a ‘meaningful vote’ in Parliament at the conclusion of our negotiations on withdrawal from the EU, but that isn’t what the wrecking amendment actually delivers.
If fact, the Government had already conceded this ‘meaningful vote’.
The Government’s opponents are determined that ‘meaningful vote’ means one that isn’t just “take it, or leave it”. They want to be able to change any agreement that the government makes. They want the ability to send the Government back to the negotiating table with detailed instructions. In effect, this is a bid by Parliament to enter the negotiating process. This weakens the position because Parliament does its business in public but, to be effective, negotiations have to be conducted in private: you don’t reveal your hand in a game of high stakes poker.
I consider the action of the Government’s opponents as an attempt to wreck the EU Withdrawal Bill.
The bill seeks to incorporate 44 years of EU legislation into UK law so that there is certainty for business, organisations, individuals and government; that we leave the EU in an orderly fashion and that the law will function properly on the day after we leave, as it did the day before.
This is a massive task and, accordingly, the bill gives order-making powers to government to get on with this enormous job without delay.
The amendment that the Government’s opponents voted for -and on which they triumphed- puts off the moment from which some of these order-making powers may be used, until the agreement with the EU has been made, and the bill to give it legislative effect is before Parliament. This delays elements of what is already a complex and very tight timetable.
So where are we now?
In her Lancaster House speech the PM defined Brexit as leaving all aspects of the EU including its internal market and customs union, and instead replacing it a negotiated free trade deal.
As Wednesday’s defeat proves however, the Parliament elected in June has a majority of members who do not share the PM’s definition of Brexit.
Her opponents fall into three categories: Those who really just want to use the issue as a means to bring down and replace her government; those who want to hang on to some form of EU participation in the internal market and customs union; and finally those who see this as really a strategy to prevent our leaving the EU at all, and they are using the others as what Lenin used to call the ‘useful idiots’ in delivering this strategy.
Who will prevail?
It’s still too soon to tell, but the contest will run, and run: So, we all need to cultivate strategic patience if we are to retain our sanity