Withdrawal Agreement Bill On Its Way To Parliament



Andrea Leadsom the Leader of the House of Commons confirmed to the Commons (you can read her full statement here) that the government would have the Second Reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) on the week beginning 3rd June. Second Reading is where MPs debate the general themes and principles of the Bill. This means that we should see the text of the WAB next week, which we have been calling for for a while now. It’s a high risk strategy for a government that lacks a stable majority, but from May’s calculation seem to be that if the Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage does well in the European elections, it will scare Conservative and Labour MP into voting for the Bill.

The big question is therefore whether WAB would even pass Second  Reading. The DUP has already indicated they will vote against it but whether Labour will abstain to amend the Bill at Committee Stage or oppose the Bill remain unclear. Corbyn’s spokeman’s did not rule out abstaining whereas both Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer has said Labour will vote against it on 2nd reading. The WAB will also likely be very controversial, giving effect to the backstop, maintains a limited role for the European Court of Justice and will also include procedures that make it more difficult for future parliaments to repeal provisions in the Bill. 

If WAB is rejected at its second reading, it cannot be brought back in the same session of Parliament, so if May wants to bring it back again she would have to prorogue Parliament and start a new Queen’s speech and a new confidence and supply agreement with the DUP (if she could indeed get one). It was therefore not surprising that the Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay said that if the WAB falls, the deal negotiated with the EU would be dead. And most MPs think May’s time as PM will be over too (more on this below). 

We have repeatedly called for the Bill to be published in draft so that civil society, stakeholders, and parliamentarians can all give proper scrutiny to the bill. With the current 2nd Reading date given by the government, and the rumoured Summer Recess start of 25th July, there will be less than 35 sitting days for scrutiny if the government aims to pass the legislation before Summer as it has repeatedly stated it wants to do. This is not long enough for proper scrutiny and will continue to exclude full involvement from civil society organisations due to such a limited time span. When the government introduced the landmark Brexit legislation, the EU Withdrawal Act - which in simple terms copy EU law onto our domestic statute book and repeals the European Communities Act 1972 - Parliament spent over 11 months scrutinising it. Parliament will now have less than two months to scrutinise a bill that will carry significant constitutional weight and is likely to attract fierce debate in Parliament.

We have previously raised multiple concerns with the WAB to ministers in our open letter to Stephen Barclay MP (which you should read here) that were sadly not answered in his Ministers response (here).

The Institute for Government has published a useful detailed explainer on WAB here

May’s departure date?
Yesterday the Prime Minister once again met with Graham Brady MP, (who is the chair of the influential Conservative party committee the 1922 committee, made up of backbench Conservative MPs) to discuss her departure date. Backbench Conservative MPs are keen for a change in leadership. Under current rules of the Conservative Party they cannot remove May until December 2019.  Therefore, some have been pushing the 1922 Committee to rewrite their party rules. Instead the Chair has been trying to get May to set out a specific departure date timetable for her. 

Backbench Conservative MPs believe a new leader will move the current gridlock in Parliament around Brexit. There is an ongoing unofficial leadership contest between potential candidates. A new leader would not change the Commons arithmetic, unless they held a General Election, but it could significantly alter the type of Brexit the government pursues. For instance it is rumoured that a Boris Johnson MP leadership would go for a No Deal Brexit.   

The results of yesterday's meeting is a statement from Brady saying “we have agreed that she and I will meet following the 2nd Reading of the Bill [WAB] to agree a timetable for the election of a new leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party”. This gives two likely outcomes. If WAB passes the 2nd Reading then May will likely continue on to see WAB through and then leave. If WAB is defeated there will be significant pressure for her to go immediately, hold a leadership contest and have a new leader announced for this year's Conservative Party conference. This new leader would then be in No 10 for a handful of weeks before the current extension ends on October 31st giving a bit of space for them to set out their direction on Brexit but not much time to renegotiate a deal. Remember that leaving the 31st October, with or without a deal remains the legal default. 

European Elections: how will it impact the Brexit process?
Next week the UK joins the other EU members in electing MEPs to the European Parliament. Under the original exit date of March 31st 2019 these elections were not meant to take place. That they are going ahead highlights the current political disagreement in Parliament, and that the government can’t pass their key legislation. 

For many voters these elections are being seen as a so called ‘free pass’ to vote for parties along Brexit lines that they may not usually vote for. This has seen the rise of the Brexit Party on the pro-Brexit side and Lib Dems and Greens on the anti-Brexit side. Polling by YouGov has shown Labour and Conservatives losing votes to both pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit parties. You can read the full findings here.

The impact of the two main parties losing large amounts of votes to other parties could dramatically change the direction of their policy in Westminster. With the Conservatives heading towards a leadership election in the coming months losing large numbers of Conservatives voters to the Brexit Party may push the Conservatives to pick a ‘No Deal’ advocate for leader. 

For Labour it depends where their previous voters go. In the YouGov polls 28% of Labour Leave voters are headed to the Brexit Party meanwhile, a combined 55% of Labour Remain voters are headed to Change UK, Lib Dem, and Green Party. This could further divide its Westminster MPs between backing a referendum or backing a deal as soon as possible. This divide can already be seen between MPs representing Leave constituencies and MPs representing Remain constituencies. The effect of the European election on the main two parties behaviour is something to keep an eye on. 

UK Shared Prosperity Fund Westminster Hall Debate
This week MPs debated the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) in Westminster Hall, You can read the entire debate here or watch it here. We wrote a brief for MPs on the UKSPF that you can read here.

The key points that were raised by MPs were:

  • Lack of information from the government, and the delay in the consultation

  • No-one wants their area to lose out on money

  • Big debate about how the funds would be administered. Will Devolved Administrations, elected combined authority mayors, local councils or Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) do it

  • There is a debate about funds priority going to need or to boost prosperity as they are not always the same thing

  • A lot of focus in the debate on the prosperity/ business side of it and little on how/whether the USKPF will help address inequality/ rights outcomes

Dan Jarvis led the debate. Sets out his four guiding principles here -http://bit.ly/2VHnfob

  1. No less in real terms that we would have received

  2. No competitive bidding element

  3. Funds should be devolved to areas with democratic governance models

  4. Funding should go over multiple years beyond spending reviews and parliamentary cycle

We welcome this debate. The government has been slow to clarify many details on its plans for the UKSPF and have not published their promised consultation which means organisations have not been able to have their proper input. However, Jake Berry MP the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Minister for the Northern Powerhouse and Local Growth said “the Government must come forward with their consultation - I am clear that this must happen - before the comprehensive spending review to enable areas to contribute to that consultation.” When we see the consultation we will share it here. 

Birmingham roundtable: Brexit and Civil Society
Have you got your ticket for our Birmingham roundtable yet? Get it here now and please share it will anyone you think should go.

In partnership with BVSC- the Centre for Voluntary Action, the Brexit Civil Society Alliance is hosting a roundtable discussion on what Brexit means for the third sector in Birmingham on the 29th May, 14.00-17.00.  

The event will bring civil society and relevant stakeholders together to network and share information and discuss what happens next and how the third sector in Birmingham can best prepare for exit day. It will also be an opportunity to express thoughts and concerns about Brexit's impact on civil society. 

Registrations/ Meet & Greet

14.00- 15.00
Introductions and a brief outline of the Brexit Civil Society Alliance
Belinda Pratten (Equally Ours): UK Shared Prosperity Fund
Alexandra Sinclair (Public Law Project): Brexit & legislative changes
Questions & Discussions


Update from the Department of Exiting the EU engagement team
General horizon scanning and where next
How can Birmingham best prepare for Exit Day

Full details can be found on our website here.

Sheffield roundtable: Brexit & Civil Society - Save the Date!
After Birmingham we will be hosting a roundtable in Sheffield. We will be in Sheffield on Tuesday 25th June, 13:30 to 16:30 at the Workstation, 15 Paternoster Row.

We will hear from civil society organisations concerns and experience of the Brexit process in Sheffield. Get your ticket here now! 

Campaign Toolkit
Have you downloaded your copy of our new Campaign Toolkit? Cutting through the noise and politics of Brexit can sometimes feel like an overwhelming task. Our toolkit is aimed at those organisations wishing to equip themselves with the tools to prepare for Brexit and engage with the decision-makers in the process. This could either be through lobbying around specific pieces of Brexit legislation or making sure members and activists are equipped to engage with key areas in the Brexit process. 

To download your copy visit our website here or get in touch with us for a physical edition.