A week is a long time in politics. But the coming weeks could feel longer than usual for UK Prime Minister Theresa May. This week saw the House of Lords start its work on the article 50 Bill – the legislation which the UK Supreme Court ruled was necessary in order for the UK parliament to give the PM the right to formally start the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Whilst the Bill has already passed the House of Commons without amendment, it seems its passage through the House of Lords (where the Conservatives do not enjoy a majority) could prove more difficult.
Essentially, the UK’s unelected second Chamber sees its role regarding the Bill’s passage through parliament very differently from the UK government. Ministers have been urging the Lords to do their “patriotic duty” and not to delay/hold up the Bill (time). The Lords, however, see scrutiny of the Bill as an integral part of the parliamentary process (matter). Amendments seem likely on two particular issues – i) the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and ii) the chance for the UK parliament (Commons and Lords) to have a “meaningful vote” after the UK/EU27 negotiations are complete. If either are adopted by the Lords, Mrs May faces a dilemma: accept the Lords’ modifications to secure swift passage of the Bill? Or use her majority in the Commons to reject the Lords’ amendments and risk potentially extending the time it takes for the Bill to be passed?
On timing, some commentators suggest that irrespective of the Lords’ stance, the government can nevertheless still trigger Brexit by Mrs May’s self-imposed end of March deadline. This will formally start the firing gun on what will be an intensive two year period. On matter, the government has already given assurances to MPs in the Commons on the very issues the Lords are raising. So it’s more a question of principle from the Lords’ perspective.
What seems clear is Mrs May favours a good deal over a quick deal with the EU in the long term. If the Lords apply the same logic and amend the Bill, Mrs May might have to choose which is more important in the short term: time or matter.
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