And they’re off…
Theresa May won overwhelming approval from the House of Commons to press ahead with Article 50 this week, also prompting further instability into Labour’s already fragile leadership in the process. The Commons vote saw the Government win the day 494 votes to 122. Shadow Business Secretary Clive Lewis was one of 52 Labour MPs to ignore a three-line whip imposed by Jeremy Corbyn to back the Bill, and he resigned from the front bench. Lewis is now the bookies’ favourite to succeed Corbyn as the next Labour leader. Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, who missed last week’s initial vote on the Bill due to a migraine, backed it this time.
The Bill will now only return to the Commons if the House of Lords is successful in amending it. Before the main vote, all nine amendments put forward in the Commons to modify its contents were defeated. Most controversially, an amendment that would have seen those EU citizens already in the UK given the right to remain was voted down 332 to 290. During the voting, SNP MPs – who led the charge against the Bill – were reprimanded by Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle after they started singing Ode to Joy, the EU anthem. Brexit Minister David Davis has since called for everyone to get behind the Brexit process: “It is now time for everyone, whichever way they voted in the referendum, to unite to make a success of the important task at hand for our country.” Short of a major rebellion by the Lords, the Government remains on track to trigger Article 50 next month, with 9 March mooted as the date of announcement – (suggest deleting this as repeats the section below..)
Over to the Lords
As per parliamentary procedure, the Bill has now passed over to the House of Lords. The Government lacks an overall majority in the Lords, giving Labour and the Liberal Democrats the theoretical ability to block its passage. Any suggestion of a challenge from the Lords has been swiftly rebuffed by the Government, with a source telling BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg: “If the Lords don’t want to face an overwhelming public call to be abolished they must get on and protect democracy and pass this bill.” Brexit Secretary David Davis called on peers to “do their patriotic duty”, while other sources within Whitehall have gone as far as to suggest a rejection of the Bill by peers could prompt reform of the upper house
The Bill must now be approved by peers, who will begin debating it after the Lords returns from recess on 20th February. The Liberal Democrats have vowed to continue tabling amendments to the legislation after it reaches the Lords, while pro-EU Tory and Labour peers may also try and make changes to the Bill. However, it’s unlikely the Bill will be rejected, keeping ministers on the timetable they’ve already set out.
Parliament will have a ‘take it or leave it’ vote on the deal
One concession made by the Government this week was a pledge to bring the final deal negotiated with the EU to a parliamentary vote. It was initially welcomed by Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer as a “huge and very important concession”, but the enthusiasm of MPs was tempered by the clarification by Brexit Minister David Jones that a vote would not result in the Government pressing for changes from the EU, but the outright rejection of a deal – the latter meaning the UK would have to trade on World Trade Organisation terms.
Labour’s Angela Eagle said it was a “Hobson’s choice”, while Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, said ministers were “treating parliament with contempt” by offering Parliament a “choice” between an extreme Brexit and a cliff edge. Europhile Conservatives also voiced their disappointment with the Government’s concession, which is unlikely to quell parliamentary demands for oversight and scrutiny of the negotiation process.
Post-Brexit mobile roaming
The agreement to ban roaming charges across the EU has been a long-trumpeted success story for the bloc. From June, citizens of member states will no longer have to pay extra to makes calls or use data services when away from their home country; but the committee that crafted the legislation has now said that the law will not apply to UK citizens once Britain leaves unless a specific deal is made. Interestingly, UKIP MEPs voted against the law in 2015, on the grounds that it would penalise those who did not travel by increasing their bills to pay for those who did.
The announcement was pounced on by Remain supporters, with Lib Dem leader Tim Farron claiming Brexit would hit consumers. The deal on mobile charges was hailed as an example of the positive influence of the UK on the EU by former Prime Minister David Cameron. News that UK residents could now be subject to roaming charges will give additional ammunition to Remainers, but will likely add a further challenge to the demanding list in front of the UK negotiators.
Greece is (still) the word
Whilst eyes have been firmly fixed on the UK and its somewhat unexpected post-referendum raft of economic good news, the long running crisis in Greece has reached another milestone. The IMF has declared the country’s national debt to be “explosive”, with growth unable to keep up with expanding debt “even with full implementation of reforms.” Greek finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos insisted the IMF’s report “fails to do justice” to the strength of the country’s economic recovery, although his pronouncement is unlikely to have cut much ice in foreign capitals and financial services.
The IMF remains at loggerheads with Germany over how to handle Greece: Berlin is in no mood to forgive debt and – given an imminent election – is reluctant to hand over additional funding in the short term. The IMF on the other hand believes that only the large-scale renegotiation of the country’s national debt will provide any sustainable path forward. Although the country’s European creditors have not entirely ruled out additional help, they say that it must wait until the current rescue programme runs out in 2018.
The threat of general social unrest and the country subsequently crashing out of the Eurozone has always been just over the horizon, but has yet to become reality. Negotiations over additional austerity measures may yet bring matters to a head, but it seems likely that a compromise will once again be reached, given the prospect of a default by Athens that would drag Europe (and the UK) back into recession and devastate Greece for at least a generation. Something to keep in mind when your first post-Brexit mobile phone bill arrives.
For more information about Brexit, the negotiation process, the key figures involved, Member State positions and possible impact on policy and industrial sectors, please visit our Project Brexit pages by clicking here.