Exactly two years after the momentous referendum (23 June 2016), this week’s forward movement on Brexit is a shot in the arm for Theresa May. Wednesday’s passage of the EU Withdrawal Bill in the House of Lords follows the Royal Assent that was accorded a day earlier. As with all legislation in the UK, the Queen’s final approval is essential to make it an Act of Parliament.
It is pretty obvious that the peers had backed down on a “meaningful amendment”. No less important, the British Prime Minister has cleared the flagship Brexit bill’s final parliamentary hurdle after averting a “backbench rebellion” by a section of the Tories. As it turned out, six Tory rebels voted for the amendment, while on the Labour side four pro-Brexit MPs defied their whips to vote with the Government against it.
Clearly, Mrs May has won over the Lords just as she has been able by and large to contain Conservative dissent. The game of what they call “parliamentary ping-pong” has gone in her favour and also of course for now, in favour of the concept of Brexit. The Upper House vote will doubtless strengthen Mrs May’s hand as she heads for Brussels to attend the forthcoming summit of European Union leaders. Considering the red herrings across the trail, as evident over the past two years, the twin developments signal a crucial step in the preparations of the United Kingdom for leaving the bloc, which ought not to be confused with leaving Europe ~ a geographical expression.
It is an index to the importance accorded to legislative certitudes that there were dramatic scenes at Westminster as MPs were told shortly before the key vote that the official ministerial statement would be made by none other than the Speaker, John Bercow, to decide whether they get a “meaningful vote” on a no-deal withdrawal from the EU.
Reports suggest that Downing Street’s determination to force the motion through was indicated when Tory whips it made clear they would not abide by a parliamentary convention allowing votes to be “nodded through” from ambulances and cars in the courtyard outside if MPs are too ill to physically pass through the voting lobbies. The parliamentary rule-book gives the Speaker the power to determine whether or not a motion is amendable.
It also notes the parliamentary convention that time is made available to debate motions tabled by MPs on matters of concern. But Downing Street left no doubt that ministers were confident of drafting a motion which Mr Bercow would deem to be unamendable. The new Act ensures that around 20,000 pieces of EU legislation will now be transferred into British law to ensure a smooth Brexit. Suffice it to register that it is a good moment for all those who want a smooth and orderly exit.