Opposition Fail in Dismal Battle Over Brexit Bill Amendments

When the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly last week in favour of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, granting Theresa May the ability to invoke Article 50 and steam ahead with a hard Brexit, there was some muttering among members of the real and supposed opposition regarding potential amendments.

The cursory bill, introduced by Brexit secretary David Davis after the Supreme Court requested some sort of say for parliament, passed in the Commons by 498 votes to 114. The following day the government belatedly published a white paper ostensibly setting out its Brexit plans. At 77 pages – replete with blank spaces and the odd embellishment or ‘mistake’ – the hastily produced document was rightly condemned for ‘saying nothing’ and being unveiled too late for ‘meaningful’ scrutiny.

It effectively regurgitates the speech delivered by Theresa May a couple of weeks ago at Lancaster House, waffling through ‘twelve objectives’ while only serving to clarify all of those things which Brexit is not.

It will mean no single market, no full membership of the customs union, no freedom of movement, no assurances to EU citizens already residing in the UK, no European Court of Justice, and no substantial parliamentary vote as negotiations draw to a close. But the government is optimistic that alternatives and compromises will be found in all of these cases, so if we just shut up and let them get on with it hopefully everything will turn out for the best.

The most egregious ‘oversight’ or ‘slip’ arrived on page 32, with a chart claiming that British workers are currently entitled to 14 weeks of annual leave. The actual average figure for a full-time worker is around 28 days. And seeking to present the country as an unanticipated bastion of generosity, the chart compares the UK’s entitlements to the EU’s regulated minimums. In fact the white paper overall says precious little about protecting workers’ rights.

Following last Wednesday’s vote – rejected by the Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, Green, 47 Labour MPs, plus Ken Clarke, the solitary Conservative, but supported by 319 Tories and 167 Labour MPs, who faced a three-line whip compelling them to back the bill – Alex Salmond, the SNP’s former leader and current foreign affairs spokesman at Westminster, said ‘Next week there will be detailed questions and the calibre of the government will be judged by how they respond to the amendments’.

He could rightfully boast his party’s continued opposition to a reckless, underhand, barely scrutinised Brexit of the far-right. But it was curious to find Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, after consenting to Theresa May’s every whim, still attempting to present his party as engaged in a meaningful ‘battle’. After the vote Corbyn said:

‘Now the battle of the week ahead is to shape Brexit negotiations to put jobs, living standards and accountability centre stage. Labour’s amendments are the real agenda. The challenge is for MPs of all parties to ensure the best deal for Britain, and that doesn’t mean giving Theresa May a free hand to turn Britain into a bargain-basement tax haven.’

In truth with last week’s vote, the Labour Party consented wholeheartedly to whatever the government happens to wish. The Conservatives and Theresa May as Prime Minister now have carte blanche to conduct Brexit negotiations without oversight or debate. The amendments proposed yesterday could, most charitably, have been described as an attempt to cause death to hard Brexit by means of so many tiny pin pricks, only there were precious few of them, and besides none of them pricked.

Instead the amendments touted a week ago by Corbyn and Salmond were rejected in turn along party lines, except for one proposed by the Liberal Democrats, which Labour and many SNP MPs simply ignored.

Labour amendments to prevent tax evasion and excessive tax competition during negotiations with the EU; to consult Gibraltar before invoking Article 50; to require the publication of a report on the financial effects of EU withdrawal on the NHS; to protect the rights of already residing EU citizens; and to ensure the UK’s continued membership of the nuclear research programme Euratom – all were defeated thanks to the Conservative majority in parliament, by between 338-327 votes versus 290-287.

An amendment which sought to uphold the Good Friday Agreement was defeated by a similar margin. And an amendment proposed by the Liberal Democrats, which would have seen the final Brexit deal go to a referendum, was defeated by 340 votes to 33 as many opposition MPs abstained.

After having all of their amendments roundly dismissed, Labour still went ahead and voted for Brexit anyway. True this time 52 Labour MPs stood against the bill – including shadow business secretary Clive Lewis, who in the process announced his resignation from the front bench – representing a slight increase in the 47 dissenters from last time round. But with a slightly fuller house and approved by 494 votes to 122, the extent of the bill’s victory was barely altered.

Jeremy Corbyn made an utter fool of himself, tweeting that the ‘Real fight starts now. Over next two years Labour will use every opportunity to ensure Brexit protects jobs, living standards and the economy’. But the SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon upbraided him for giving the Tories a ‘blank cheque’, adding ‘You didn’t win a single concession but still voted for the bill. Pathetic’.

A version of this article was originally published at The Shimmering Ostrich.