9 February 2017
The bill to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has passed the House of Commons.
The first leg of the parliamentary battle over Brexit has now concluded, with the government’s European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill passing through all three readings in the House of Commons. It was eventually backed by a majority of 372, with 494 MPs backing Brexit and a shameful 122 opposing the will of 17.4 million Brits.
But the process has not and will not be as smooth as it could be, with struggles against a whip in the Labour party during Commons votes and an upcoming struggle set for the House of Lords – where the composition of the chamber does not reflect the current political mood of the public, and where many career politicians from dying parties like the Liberal Democrats hold disproportionate sway.
The Supreme Court
The series of votes came after the Supreme Court ruled in a controversial split decision that parliament must have a say on the EU withdrawal process, having been persuaded by the fallacious argument that the European Communities Act 1972 required continued membership of the European Union rather than being merely contingent on it.
The case was brought by Gina Miller who won a victory in the High Court, but was appealed by the government and argued before the Supreme Court. All eleven justices sat in an unprecedented move which highlighted the constitutional importance of the verdict.
The second reading
The vote on the second reading – after the bill was introduced in the first – marked an historic moment in our nation’s history when parliament voted for the first time in favour of independence from the imperious European Union. Such an event would have been unthinkable before our courageous vote to leave the EU in June 2016, and many had feared that Remoaner MPs would seek to scupper the process in recent months.
While 47 Labour MPs defied their party’s whips – including a number of the whips themselves– and joined with the SNP and Liberal Democrat MPs blocking Brexit, one prominent Labour MP was absent. Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott skipped the vote, claiming she was suffering from a migraine. The excuse was particularly embarrassing given that several cancer-stricken MPs managed to attend.
But when the votes were counted Brexit was backed by a clear majority of MPs. Tired old Ken Clarke was the only Tory MP to oppose the motion, offering his typical rant in favour of our continued membership of the mad bloc and dismissing the huge national debate around the referendum as embarrassing.
The third reading
For the third reading and the final vote, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn reaffirmed the imposition of a three line whip on Labour MPs, calling on them to back the bill triggering the Brexit process. But he confessed to Radio 4 that it was a “very lenient position”, undermining any effort to instil discipline in his front bench team.
122 MPs opposed Brexit on the third reading of the bill – up eight from the initial vote. Shadow Business Secretary and key Corbyn ally Clive Lewis resigned his front bench position to oppose the bill, along with 51 other Labour MPs including 11 junior shadow ministers and three whips. The full list of Labour MPs who attempted to block Brexit can be found at Westmonster.
Anti-Brexit parliamentarians from the SNP embarrassed themselves during the vote by humming the anthem of the hated European Union – from the Ode to Joy – in the chamber, against traditional standards of parliamentary behaviour. They were slapped down by Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, who told them that he did not “want a sing off in the chamber”.
The battle in the Lords
Corbyn took to Twitter shortly after the vote to say that the “real fight starts now. Over next two years Labour will use every opportunity to ensure Brexit protects jobs, living standards & the economy.” But the fight to secure national independence must move to the House of Lords first, where the bill saw its first reading on Wednesday and where Labour peers have already tabled eight amendments.
Some in the Lords have already vowed to vote against Brexit including former New Labour minister Peter Hain. The former Europe minister insisted it was “a matter of principle and a matter of conscience”, wrongly claiming that “the very people Labour is in politics to represent will be hit the hardest”. The comments reveal the patronising approach that many metropolitan politicians take towards their own constituents, with working class Labour voters backing Brexit in huge numbers.
The government however have been optimistic about their chances of getting the bill through the Lords, threatening harsh constitutional consequences for the upper chamber if Brexit is rejected by the unelected peers. But with such a politically unrepresentative House of Lords, trouble could be on the way. The Liberal Democrats have 102 peers despite collapsing in the 2015 general election. UKIP, who outpolled them then, only have 3.
The first hurdle has been overcome, but Brexiteers cannot afford to take their eyes off the ball now.