Top 3 developments
- Government defeated for first time on EU (Withdrawal) Bill.
- David Davis comments prompt Brussels to tighten-up withdrawal agreement details.
- Theresa May arrives in Brussels to urge EU27 to progress to trade talks quickly. .
Government loses key vote on Brexit Bill
The Government was defeated for the first time on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill on Wednesday. The amendment legally guarantees that Parliament will get a vote on the final Brexit deal. Ministers had previously promised to give Parliament a “meaningful vote”, but former Attorney General Dominic Grieve’s amendment has now enshrined this promise in law, with the added assurance that this must happen before any UK-EU deal is implemented. During his 30-minute speech in the Commons, Grieve said he had whole-heartedly sought to engage with ministers over several weeks to reach a compromise, but had been met with resistance – “the blunt reality is, and I’m sorry to have to say this to the house, I’ve been left in the lurch, as a backbench member trying to improve this legislation”. Justice Minister Dominic Raab offered a desperate last-minute concession, saying the Government would table at a later date its own amendment achieving the same outcome, to which Grieve responded “it’s too late” and called a division. Despite intense pressure from Tory whips, the Government lost by four votes – inflicting an embarrassing defeat on the Prime Minister, who must face her European counterparts in Brussels today. Right-wing media outlets were quick to criticise the 11 Conservative MPs who rebelled against their party to support the amendment; though less attention has been paid to the seven or so Brexit Labour MPs whose support the Government can usually rely on, but who opposed them on this occasion. Even hard-line Labour Leavers like Dennis Skinner voted for Grieve’s amendment. One of the Tory rebels – Stephen Hammond – was promptly sacked as vice-chair of the Conservative Party. The sacking makes evident ministers’ fears that the defeat may embolden further Tory MPs to rebel. There looks to be a reasonable chance of Government defeat over whether the day of Brexit is fixed in law (if so, there would be no opportunity to extend Article 50 should negotiations prove fruitless or prolonged). Thus far, ministers have refused to back down on the issue – though, in light of Wednesday’s rebellion, they may be forced to concede in order to avoid sustaining a defeat if the issue is taken to a vote.
Wednesday’s defeat came after the Government was forced to make concessions earlier in the week to quell a separate rebellion over the so-called Henry VIII powers. To head off a Tory revolt, May agreed to set up a new committee of MPs to monitor any proposed legal changes as EU legislation is consolidated into domestic British law. Up to 25 Tory MPs had threatened to rebel unless the Prime Minister promised greater scrutiny over the Brexit process, with Dominic Grieve calling the bill the “most extraordinary arrogation of powers” that he had seen during his career in parliament. To deal with the problem, Downing Street said it would accept amendments proposed by the House of Commons Procedure Committee, which create a new process to ensure statutory instruments cannot be pushed through the Commons without proper scrutiny. The job of the new “sifting committee” will be to look at each piece of legislation and recommend which ones require scrutiny, debate and a vote before they become law. The Committee would have 10 sitting days to make this recommendation. May’s official spokesman said No. 10 would be accepting the proposals in full.
The next votes on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, will take place on Wednesday 20th December.
Brussels tightens Brexit agreement in response to Davis comments
Brexit Secretary David Davis has caused a headache for the Government after saying the agreement reached between the UK and EU thus far is “more of a statement of intent than a legally enforceable thing”. The comments, made during an interview on the Marr Show, sparked retaliation in Brussels. European Parliament Brexit Chief Guy Verhofstadt criticised Davis and agreed to table two amendments to the existing draft resolution which will force the UK to “stick to its commitments”. The language of the draft resolution drawn up by the EU27 sherpas has since been tightened up, with the added assurance that phase 2 “can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken during the first phase are respected in full, and translated faithfully in legal terms as quickly as possible”. Following angry responses from across Europe, Davis eventually backtracked on his comments, saying “let’s work to get it converted into legal text as soon as possible”.
May gives statement on EU progress
On Monday the Prime Minister gave a statement to the House of Commons on the progress made during the Brexit negotiations thus far. During the speech May confirmed that the UK’s financial offer is conditional on the Government getting a Brexit deal. She also reiterated that the Government is still hoping to agree a trade deal by next Autumn – despite the EU stating that it is only envisioning a “political declaration” covering trade by this point (and not a full trade deal). In the meantime, the Prime Minister said a transition deal may not be agreed until March 2018. The press were quick to report that May’s statement was well received by her usually-warring backbenchers – though, as this week’s vote shows, such unity was short-lived.
UKIP investigated by ICO
UKIP is to face an Information Rights Tribunal over its use of analytics during the EU referendum, after refusing to cooperate with a formal investigation into political parties and data run by the Information Commissioner’s Office. Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner, said that more than 30 organisations were being examined, in relation to compliance with privacy legislation. A UKIP spokesperson said the party was prepared to cooperate with the ICO and was only appealing against a threat of criminal sanctions; “we’re perfectly happy to deal with them, but not under the threat”, he said.
Economic reports offer Brexit gloom
New economic reports have been published this week, showing that business confidence has slumped to a five-year low, with pessimism most acute in London as a result of fears about the capital’s post-Brexit prospects. The first report, based on a poll conducted by employment agency Manpower concludes, “we are starting to see tangible signs of London’s pre-eminence fading with the capital reporting its weakest outlook in four years”. The second report, from a separate study by RAND Europe, concludes almost every possible outcome from Brexit would be more economically damaging for Britain than staying inside the EU.
Gove says Brexit can be altered
Environment Secretary and Brexiteer Michael Gove has said that the British people can change the terms of the final Brexit deal at the next general election, should they disagree with what the Government has negotiated. Writing in the Telegraph, Gove said “if the British people dislike the arrangement that we have negotiated with the EU, the agreement will allow a future government to diverge”.
May arrives in Brussels to urge haste on trade talks
The Prime Minister has flown to Brussels today to attend a crunch EU Summit, after having done enough to secure “sufficient progress” in the first phase of negotiations. Around lunchtime tomorrow the official verdict on the first round will be formally announced. In the meantime, May is expected to use today’s dinner as a last minute diplomatic effort to persuade Brussels to start trade talks before March 2018. Leaked guidelines from Brussels show that, as it stands, trade talks are not expected to begin until the second quarter of 2018, as it will take the Council until March to agree Michel Barnier’s negotiating mandate for phase two. The guidelines also stress that the authority of the ECJ over the UK will continue during any transition period. The three-month wait risks damaging the Conservative party just as they have regained the lead in domestic popular opinion polls. Thus, with time running out, May is keen to progress to substantive trade talks as soon as possible, and is likely to raise the delay with her counterparts today.
Barnier shoots down full trade deal before March 2019
EU chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has shot down the prospect of agreeing a full trade deal by 30th March 2019. Instead, he has claimed it will only be possible to draw up a “political declaration” on what the future framework for trade with the bloc might look like. Speaking at a press conference following a meeting of foreign affairs and EU ministers in Brussels, Barnier said there is not enough time to agree a full trade deal, and neither would various legal and technical mechanisms allow it. David Davis, however, reiterated over the weekend that a “substantive trade deal” is still expected. Responding to Davis’ comments, Barnier added, “[Davis] has experience of European matters, we were ministers of European affairs at the same time… and he knows perfectly what is possible and what is not possible”.
- 14th – 15th December – EU Council Summit.
- 17th December – Christmas recess begins.
- 20th December – EU (Withdrawal) Bill final day in Commons Committee Stage.
- 5th January – Christmas recess ends.
- 22nd – 23rd March – EU Council Summit.