Yesterday the government made three important concessions on the article 50 bill. This came at the beginning of the debate I was leading on Labour’s proposals for there to be a meaningful vote at the end of the Brexit negotiations.
Firstly, the government announced that parliament will have a vote on “not only the withdrawal arrangements but also the future relationship with the European Union”.
Secondly, that the vote parliament has on the draft withdrawal agreement will take place “before it is concluded”.
Thirdly – and crucially – that the UK parliament will debate and vote on the draft withdrawal deal before the European parliament or council.
This is not everything Labour had asked for, and we will look to firm up the government’s commitments as the bill progresses through both houses of parliament. But it is a significant step forward in ensuring parliament has a meaningful vote.
Much as the prime minister may now like to pretend otherwise, for months she refused to confirm that parliament would have a vote at all on the article 50 deal. It wasn’t until her Lancaster House Speech on January 17 that she first announced this. Contrast that with her evasive answers at the liaison committee in December, when she failed to answer on three occasions if MPs would get a vote on the final article 50 deal.
Before yesterday the government had given no indication that the House of Commons would vote on the article 50 deal before the European Parliament does. This left open the very real possibility that MPs would have to watch as MEPs had the first chance to debate and vote on the proposed terms of our exit from the EU. That would, of course, have been completely contrary to arguments for parliamentary sovereignty made in the referendum.
It is also significant that the Commons will now have a say on any draft deal “before it is concluded” (again, yesterday the first time the government has confirmed this), as this opens up the possibility of ministers being able to revise their proposed deal in light of the views expressed by parliament.
On the EU Commission’s favoured timetable, it is likely a proposed deal will be in the autumn of 2018, four or five months before the end of the article 50 process. That would allow time for the government to consider the views expressed by the House of Commons before the proposed deal reaches the EU parliament and council.
If the prime minister fails to win the support of the Commons for a withdrawal deal – and let’s remember that she has a majority in the Commons – then the chances are she has negotiated a bad deal. In such circumstances she would have lost control of her own party, the Commons and the country. She would unavoidably have to change her negotiating strategy and seek a better deal for Britain – much as No 10 suggested otherwise yesterday.
I have also repeatedly called for there to a guaranteed vote on the article 50 agreement and on any proposed future relationship with the EU. This matters because the nature of that second deal, i.e. on our future relationship with the EU, will be hugely important for the future of UK trade, the economy, security, rights etc.
Taken together these add up to important and new commitments from the government.
They have come about because of Labour pressure. And they will help improve the Brexit process.
In negotiating a withdrawal deal, and our future relationship with Europe, the prime minister should always have the views of the country and parliament in mind. The inclusion of a meaningful vote will go some way to achieving that.
The challenge now is for the prime minister to deliver a Brexit deal that works for jobs, the economy and workers’ rights and can win the support of the House of Commons.
These are hugely complex issues. But we have now made a step forward.
Keir Starmer, QC, is shadow secretary of state for exiting the EU and MP for Holborn and St Pancras.
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