Why Theresa May faces defeat on her flagship Brexit bill


Theresa May is making one final attempt to save her Brexit deal — and her premiership — by asking MPs to approve the legislation that would implement the divorce treaty with Brussels.

The prime minister wants the House of Commons to vote on her withdrawal agreement bill — nicknamed the WAB and said to be half an inch thick — during the week starting June 3.

Few MPs have seen the bill, reflecting how Mrs May’s aides fear its contents will fuel Eurosceptic Tories’ opposition to her Brexit deal because of their concerns that it will lock the UK into close ties with the EU, and thwart an independent UK trade policy.

“Publishing the WAB will upset many people because it states in black and white legal terms what the contents of the withdrawal agreement are,” said one aide. “But we have no choice. We have to get a move on.”

MPs have emphatically rejected Mrs May’s Brexit deal three times since January, forcing Brexit to be delayed from March 29 until as late as October 31, and putting Mrs May’s premiership on the line.

Experts said there were three broad reasons why the government now risked defeat in the Commons on the withdrawal agreement bill.

First, the bill gives effect to the Irish backstop, the provision in the divorce treaty to prevent the return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic through a customs union between the UK and the EU if necessary. Northern Ireland, but not Britain, would also be bound by the EU’s goods regulations.

Eurosceptic Conservatives fear the customs arrangement could become permanent, and prevent a discrete British trade policy.

The Democratic Unionist party, which is supposed to prop up Mrs May’s government, objects to how the backstop would integrate Northern Ireland more deeply into the EU goods market than the rest of the UK.

“Many Conservative MPs oppose the Irish backstop and have made demands for greater parliamentary control over when or if it comes into effect,” said Maddy Thimont Jack, researcher at the Institute for Government, a think-tank.

“Many would want a separate Commons vote held at some future date before it’s implemented but this is something which would really concern the EU.”

Second, the bill maintains a limited role for the European Court of Justice in UK law after Britain leaves the EU.

“The EU withdrawal act passed in 2018 turned off the principle of supremacy and direct effect of EU law in the UK,” said Catherine Barnard, professor of EU law at Trinity College Cambridge.

“What the WAB does is turn it back on again — not only for the standstill transition period but also in a number of areas afterwards such as enforcing the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. Many Conservative MPs will object to this.”

Third, the bill enacts the arrangements under which UK has agreed to pay up to €45bn to the EU as part of leaving the bloc.

“The bill give ministers powers to make payments to the EU,” said Ms Thimont Jack. “But MPs could amend these clauses to make payments conditional on the EU reaching a trade agreement with the UK, or on future parliamentary votes.”

In spite of the likelihood of defeat on the withdrawal agreement bill, Mrs May has little choice but to push it to a vote because of her dire need to show she has a way out of the parliamentary deadlock on her Brexit deal.

Her main hope of victory appears to rest on the calculation that if opinion polls are right and Nigel Farage’s Brexit party triumphs in the European Parliament elections next week, it will scare Conservative and Labour MPs into voting for her bill.

But pressing ahead with the vote is a high stakes bet: should Mrs May lose a vote on the bill at its second reading earmarked for the week starting June 3, she could not bring it back to the Commons without first holding a Queen’s Speech setting out a new legislative programme.

“Her political hope is that the European elections will see such a big swing to Farage that enough Labour MPs respond by backing the WAB, fearing they could otherwise lose the support of Leave voters,” said Anand Menon, director of UK in a Changing Europe, a think-tank.

“The clever money is that there is no majority to support this bill, putting her premiership in jeopardy . . . if she loses the key vote on the WAB I don’t see how she stays.”

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