Process moves on to House of Lords for awkward final stages
The European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill to pave the way for the formal Brexit process to begin under Article 50 of the EU treaties has cleared the House of Commons without being amended.
But it will now pass to the House of Lords, where the stages — second reading, committee (when substantive amendments can be made) and third reading — are repeated.
The government could find life more tricky in the upper chamber, where the Bill will be introduced on February 20, because it does not have a majority.
Labour in the Lords has already said it will examine but not block the government’s Brexit plans, although some individual peers are likely to register their opposition.
But the Liberal Democrats are determined to guarantee a fresh referendum on the final deal, protect single market membership and guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK.
The party has 102 peers, compared with 253 Tories, out of a total 805.
Last night, former deputy prime minister and ex-Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg vowed to keep up the pressure for a “meaningful” vote on the final deal the Prime Minister achieves in negotiations.
The Bill is expected to complete its passage through the Lords by March 7, but if peers have made amendments, it will return to the Commons, where MPs will debate whether or not to keep the changes.
This procedure, known as “ping-pong”, would see the Bill repeatedly move between the Commons and the Lords until an agreement is reached on the final text.
Ping-pong seems the most likely stage for the Bill to be held up, as peers could become emboldened with time running out for the government to hit its timetable of triggering Article 50 by April. But members in both Houses will be acutely aware that appearing to frustrate the progress of the Bill would risk accusations that they are going against the will of the people expressed in last year’s referendum.
And unelected peers have also been warned by a government source that the Lords will face an “overwhelming public call” to be abolished if it attempts to frustrate progress. The fact the legislation passed through the Commons without being amended also weakens peers’ hands.