What are the challenges facing Theresa May's withdrawal bill?

Brexit bill that could let UK leave EU in summer looks unlikely to pass parliament

Theresa May has pledged to give MPs another opportunity to vote on Brexit early next month, with or without Labour’s backing. Here are some of the challenges facing the withdrawal agreement bill.

Why is Theresa May bringing the withdrawal agreement bill to parliament?

Although it may seem as though May is making a fourth attempt to pass her deal, the tactic is slightly different to the other three votes. Parliament has held three “meaningful votes” – a vote that was made a legal requirement of ratifying the agreement after amendments in 2017 by the Conservative MP Dominic Grieve.

The withdrawal agreement bill – or WAB as it is known in Westminster – was intended to be the second stage after MPs had voted to ratify the agreement, to enshrine it in UK law.

However, MPs have failed to pass the first stage and the House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, has made it clear the government cannot repeatedly ask MPs to vote on the same question without substantial changes.

Therefore, the government is now skipping directly to the second stage, and will need to include a clause in the bill removing the need for a separate approval motion.

What risks are involved in bringing the bill to parliament?

Bringing the withdrawal agreement bill to parliament with no stable majority is fraught with risk for the government.

Should the bill fail to pass at second reading, May would not be able to bring it back during this parliament and may be faced with proroguing parliament in order to make any new attempt. That would mean beginning a new parliament and having to pass another Queen’s speech – extremely difficult in the current climate.

Why is she doing it in the first week of June?

After a lengthy cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning, ministers agreed the UK should leave the EU before the summer parliamentary recess – usually due to begin in mid-July.

The bill would need to get through all its different stages before recess, which is why the week of 3 June has been set, coming after the European elections and parliament’s Whitsun recess. “It is imperative we do so then if the UK is to leave the EU before the summer parliamentary recess,” No 10 said.

It is set to be a busy week for the prime minister and MPs: the US president, Donald Trump, will visit the UK from 3-5 June, when world leaders are gathering in Portsmouth for D-day commemorations. It is also the Peterborough byelection, which Labour, the Tories and the Brexit party are tightly contesting, on 6 June.

What does this mean for the cross-party talks?

Talks with Labour are to continue between officials, including Corbyn’s head of policy, Andrew Fisher, and May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell. The change is that the talks now have a deadline to come to an agreement.

When Corbyn met May on Tuesday night, he said the shadow cabinet had concerns about the prime minister’s ability to deliver on any compromise agreement, particularly after combative statements by Conservative MPs and cabinet ministers jostling for the Tory leadership.

Without Corbyn’s support, the PM will somehow need to find at least 30 or so “switchers” who voted against the deal last time – when it was defeated by 58 votes – but are ready to fall into line. Indeed, given a number of former Tory rebels have since rediscovered their opposition to the deal, the number she needs may be significantly higher.

Will the bill pass parliament?

Unless there are substantial changes, it looks unlikely. Corbyn made it clear to May he would whip MPs to vote against the bill unless agreement had been reached in the cross-party talks.

Parties that support a referendum, including the Scottish National party, Liberal Democrats and Change UK, are also likely to oppose the bill unless it contains a clause adding a referendum – which May opposes.

The Democratic Unionist party has said it is “highly likely” May’s deal would be defeated again unless the prime minister can “demonstrate something new that addresses the problem of the backstop”, and that is a proviso also likely to apply to Tory Eurosceptics who have previously voted down the agreement.


Jessica Elgot Chief political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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