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As Brexit law comes up, crucial days ahead for UK

Vidya Ram | Updated on June 11, 2018

Pro-EU demonstrators hold placards and wave flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London.   -  Reuters

Tuesday and Wednesday are set to be crucial days for the British government’s Brexit strategy, as a key piece of legislation, heavily amended in the House of Lords, returns to the House of Commons for further scrutiny and changes.

The EU Withdrawal Bill — the piece of legislation at the heart of the government’s approach to Brexit — will be debated and voted on in a lengthy session of the House of Commons on Tuesday and Wednesday, at which the government will be looking to overturn 15 amendments made by Members of the Lords. They include two crucial amendments: one will require the government to continue to negotiate British membership of the European customs union, while another will give MPs the power to stop Britain from exiting the EU without a deal with the grouping.

Trade deals

The government has insisted it is necessary for Britain to leave the customs union and be able to negotiate its own trade deals with countries such as India. It has also repeatedly rejected suggestions that a no-deal scenario had to be ruled out, arguing it would undermine the negotiation strategy.

With the government holding no overall Commons majority following last year’s general election (and relying on the support of their Northern Irish partner, the DUP, to push through legislation), there is a risk that even a handful of Conservative MPs opposed to the government’s approach to Brexit — and in particular its insistence on leaving the EU single market and customs union — could vote with the Labour Party to keep the amendments. Over the weekend, the Labour Party urged Conservatives concerned about the direction of British government policy to join them in backing some of the Lords amendments.

“There is a real chance for Parliament to change the course of the Brexit negotiations and bring some order where there is real chaos,” Keir Starmer, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Brexit, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday.

Over the weekend Amber Rudd — Britain’s Remain-supporting former home secretary and former Conservative Party leader (and Brexit supporter) Iain Duncan Smith wrote a piece in the Sunday Telegraph, urging their colleagues in the Commons not to vote against the government, calling for “discipline” and “unity of purpose”. The vote comes after another dramatic week for British politics amid heated internal political fighting over a customs backstop (putting British trade tariffs on a par with EU ones temporarily in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland). Separately, a secret recording of Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, obtained by BuzzFeed News, branded concerns about the short- and medium-term impact of Brexit as “mumbo jumbo” and concerns around the disruptions at customs borders as “pure millennium bug stuff”.

Altering direction

Johnson attacked Britain’s Treasury (Finance Ministry) as the “heart of Remain” and spoke admiringly of US President Donald Trump, suggesting he would have done a better job at Brexit negotiations.

Also, The Observer revealed over the weekend that Arron Banks, a businessman who was a major donor to Leave.EU, one of the several Brexit campaign groups, met with Russian officials “multiple times”, reviving concerns about potential foreign political interference in the referendum. Labour front-bencher Liam Byrne called for Britain’s Electoral Commission to call the Metropolitan Police to look into the source of funding for Leave.EU. “We HAVE to know the truth of whether Russia bought the # Brexit vote,” he tweeted.

Ironically, the British government’s weakness could end up being the factor that persuades Conservative MPs to avoid rebellion. Over the weekend, British media reported that some Conservative rebels were considering backing the government, because a defeat at this stage could jeopardise the authority of Prime Minister Theresa May, and potentially propel a more hawkish, Brexit-supporting, politician to power.

However, with further legislation due to return to the Commons in coming months, it is unlikely to be the last opportunity for MPs to attempt to alter the direction of Brexit in a fundamental way.

 

Published on June 11, 2018

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