Today, the Commons will consider a key amendment to the Bill triggering our withdrawal negotiations with the EU. It should be very firmly opposed.
Let us be in no doubt that the effect, perhaps unintended, of the amendment could be to cause the Brexit process to fail. This is not apparent from the first three parts of the new clause which seek to include in the Bill itself the Prime Minister’s commitment to give Parliament a vote on the outcome.
Lord Heseltine argued in the Lords that much could change in two years, so the pledge had to be made a legal obligation. However, by the same token, the law can have unintended and unforeseen consequences in new situations. As Lord Lisvane, a former Clerk of the House of Commons, put it: “regulating Parliamentary proceedings by statute … generally ends in some sort of tears.”
The potentially dangerous part of the amendment is its fourth sub-clause, which would oblige the Prime Minister to seek the prior approval of Parliament before deciding to leave the EU without any agreement. This is bound to weaken the Prime Minister’s hand very significantly. Faced with a really bad deal, she would have no alternative but to return to Parliament. This would not concern her fellow heads of government, who are very well aware that there are many in the UK Parliament, and especially in the Lords, who are firm Remainers and who would fiercely oppose any proposal to pull out of the talks.
Let us suppose, for example, that a deadlock arises over the UK’s financial obligations on departure. Huge sums of £50 billion or so have already been floated in Brussels and challenged in London. If the Prime Minister was tied down by this amendment, she could, if faced with a thoroughly unreasonable demand, only agree to pay up – or else go back to Parliament where she might well lose a vote on a proposal to withdraw from the negotiations. One could even imagine that some EU officials might be quite attracted to the prospect of unseating a British government which had dared to challenge the authority of Brussels. Would we be handing them a silver bullet? Are they likely to fire it? Hard to say at this juncture. Is it worth the risk? Certainly not.
Further down the track, some peers seem to be hoping that the events of the next two years, with its inevitable rows with the EU over a whole range of issues, will undermine public confidence in Brexit long before there is any possibility of its benefits becoming apparent. A new “Project Fear” is already looming on the horizon.
That is the juncture which, they may hope, would provide the opportunity to strike by voting down the eventual deal when it comes to Parliament. Time would then be extremely short: Article 50 itself lays down that, if there is no agreement within two years, our membership simply comes to an end.
At that point we would be faced with only three possible courses of action – crashing out of the EU at the last minute with huge consequences for the financial markets; seeking an extension to the negotiating period (which requires the unanimous agreement of the member states), or a humiliating withdrawal of our notice to leave if (as is not certain) that is possible under EU law.
The political fallout for the governing party would be immense. Indeed, there would be a very serious blow to our entire body politic if a clear decision in a referendum were to end in chaos. But all that is for another day. For the time being, this amendment contains risks that are simply not worth running. I trust that MPs will not be seduced down such a dangerous path.