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BREXIT: TESTING TIME FOR PRIME MINISTER MAY





Robert Harneis – TDO -British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has lost one vote in the House of Lords and will shortly lose another in her struggle to launch the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. The UK’s bizarre unelected second chamber has voted by 358 to 256 in support of an amendment to her bill to permit her to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon and begin negotiations with the European Union. The opposition vote demands that the government recognize the rights of 3 Million EU nationals living in the UK to stay there unconditionally. The government says they cannot agree to this until the EU, at the same time, agrees to the reciprocal right of 1.5 million British nationals to stay in the EU. There is little doubt that the amendment will be overturned when it comes back to the House of Commons.

More problematic is another amendment that will require the government to give parliament a ‘meaningful’ vote on the final severance terms that agreed with the EU. The government has put forward a simple bill giving it the power to ‘notify … the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU’. Here there is likely to be a revolt by up to 30 government back benchers when the House of Commons votes. The government has an overall majority of 17. Pro-Europeans are in a majority in the British parliament. They claim they are trying to stop the government just walking away from Europe if negotiations fail.

Britain voted 52% to 48% to leave the European Union on 23 June. Executing that decision has highlighted a number of eccentricities of the British constitution. The government originally planned to trigger article 50 without consulting parliament under the Royal Prerogative. They were prevented from doing this by a decision of the British Supreme Court. In addition, because the second chamber, The House of Lords is appointed and not elected. As a result, there is no correlation between the government’s elected majority in the House of Commons and the balance in the House of Lords, where the government is in a minority. Notably the pro-EU Lib Dem party won only 9 seats in the House of Commons but has 102 votes in the House of Lords.

The government is anxious to have its hands as free as possible to press on with what will be difficult negotiations with Brussels and will seek to vote down the amendments. The ‘Remainers’ who actually are a majority in the House of Commons dare not defy the popular referendum result but wish to control the negotiations or,better still, so hamper them that Britain finds it difficult to make an effective and genuine break. The bill is scheduled to return to the House of Commons for a tense debate on 13 March.

Even if the government is successful in getting its bill through unchanged, there is a threat of further legal action in the courts to compel the government to allow a vote on the final negotiated settlement with the EU.