Last Thursday the Government was defeated by 274 votes to 315...
This week the committee stage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill begins and is likely to involve a real political battle. So far 454 amendments have been tabled, including 74 new clauses and there are factions in both the Labour and Conservative parties who are not following their party’s lines.
David Davis will lead for the Government and Sir Keir Starmer for the Opposition but there are backbenchers in both parties as well as the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists all seeking to reshape the legislation.
On the Conservative side there are at least 40 backbenchers who want a clean break from the EU on 29th March 2019 with little or no financial settlement. This faction is led by such people as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Other Conservative and most Labour MPs want a softer Brexit with a two year transition, a trade deal and no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This group includes the Chancellor and the Business Secretary.
There are also factions within both the major parties that have their own agendas. Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General, leads a group of Remainers who accept the result of the 2016 referendum but want to amend clauses that marginalise Parliament and give the Government powers to change the law using Henry viii powers rather than the normal legislative process. There is also a Labour faction, including people like Chuka Umunna, who have tabled their own amendments rather than supporting those from Jeremy Corbyn and the front bench team. The Government only has a working majority of seven so if, on some of the amendments, these backbench factions, together with the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists, can vote together their amendments could be passed.
It is no exaggeration to call this a battle. Those MPs who want a soft Brexit to give UK business continued tariff free access to EU markets are implicitly accepting continuing oversight of those arrangements by the European Court of Justice and the need to make payments to the EU without any say in EU decisions. That is totally unacceptable to hard line Brexiteers. The latter expect the UK to build new trading relationships with non-EU countries whilst the former think it is naïve to think this can be done quickly. The UK would first have to join the World Trade Organisation and then negotiate deals with other countries which could take several years. They are concerned about the potential job losses in the hiatus.
The Tory rebels are also concerned about the consequences of leaving the forty organisations, like Europol, the European Medicines Agency and Euratum, membership of which play an important role in the UK. They are similarly disturbed by the numbers of EU workers in the NHS, British farming and the construction industry who have or might leave the UK because they feel unwanted and subject to xenophobic abuse. For example, the NHS employs 12,000 doctors from the European Economic Area which represent 7.7% of the NHS medical force. Unless and until their rights to stay in the UK are negotiated with the EU there is a risk of serious staff shortages in our hospitals.
This Bill is almost certainly the most crucial piece of legislation these MPs will ever have to engage in. They are deeply divided and their leaders are weak. The implications for the rest of us are of the highest significance. Whatever our views about the EU and Brexit it is every believer’s duty to follow St Paul’s teaching (e.g. in Philippians 4:6-9) and pray for God’s guidance and wisdom for Parliament to serve the nation responsibly.