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Brexit moves towards phase two

The Brexit bandwagon rolls on. Wednesday saw the House of Commons giving the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill a Second Reading and on Thursday we had a White Paper spelling out the Government’s priorities in the forthcoming negotiations. 470 MPs voted for the Bill and only 114 opposed it with 13 absent from the House.

The 114 included one Conservative, 47 Labour, 7 Liberal Democrats, all the SNP and 9 other Members. The Second Reading approved the principles of the Bill but not the details. They will be debated on three days next week.

One might expect that a two clause Bill of 137 words leaves little that can be amended but there are dozens of amendments tabled, including 50 from the SNP alone. One that might well be agreed is a Labour amendment to give the 3.3 million EU citizen’s living in this country a unilateral guarantee of their right to stay as British citizens after withdrawal. A number of Conservative MPs, including Alberto Costa whose parents are EU citizens living here, are known to support that and as the Government’s majority is only 16, if these Conservatives voted with Labour on this amendment it could well be passed. Even if this didn’t happen next week it could still happen when the Bill goes to the House of Lords. Peers will debate the Bill between 20th February and 7th March. There are many Remainers amongst them but it is unlikely that they will reject the Bill though some modest amendments are not impossible. If so those amendments will have to be agreed with the Commons. There is still no reason why the Prime Minister should not be able to trigger Article 50 by the end of March.

The second phase of Brexit will obviously focus on the negotiations and the signs are that these will be tough. First, the Commission recognises that if Brexit is quick and easy it could prompt other member states with a significant number of Euro-sceptics to follow Britain’s example. Second, Sir Ivan Rogers, our former ambassador to the EU who resigned in January has predicted the talks would be "conducted very publicly" with "name-calling" and in an "extremely feisty atmosphere". He says the EU Commission are saying the UK should pay 40-60bn euros to leave and  he thought a trade deal could take until the mid-2020s to agree. That could still cause opponents of Brexit to press for a rethink. The PM has promised Parliament to have a vote on the outcomes of her negotiations and if she lost that there would inevitably be a General Election.

The Bill has challenging implications for the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn imposed a three line whip for his MPs to vote for the Bill. That 17 frontbenchers and 30 backbenchers ignored this is another sign of the party’s disarray and his weakness as party leader. He has twice been elected with substantial majorities of the party’s rank and file members so a fresh challenge to his leadership is unlikely but it weakens the party’s credibility as the Opposition and given the small majority the Government has this is a significant issue.

Whatever decisions the politicians make the consequences will affect us all and for some they could mean companies closing and jobs lost. However we voted last June, the need to pray for our nation and for those conducting the negotiations is unquestionable.

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