Here's what's happening with Brexit in Parliament in 2018

Mark D'Arcy
Parliamentary correspondent

  • Published
Houses of ParliamentImage source, Alex Hunt

Make the most of the festive break, MPs and peers, and recharge those batteries, because 2018 looks set to be another intense, unpredictable year in Parliament and politics.

On the legislative front it's Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, as major bills on trade and customs hit the Commons in the first week after New Year, with talk of an Immigration Bill, to set up a new post EU system, an Agriculture Bill to replace the Commons Agricultural Policy and a similar Fisheries Bill not far behind.

All of these will have the same generic issue that has hovered over the EU Withdrawal Bill - they have to provide sweeping powers and extensive legislative tools for ministers, so that they can set up a system that has yet to be negotiated. So expect plenty more talk about Henry VIII powers and scrutiny systems as they are debated.

Meanwhile there's still a long way to go with the centrepiece of Brexit legislation, the EU Withdrawal Bill. It is due for its Report and Third Reading Stages in the Commons on Tuesday 16 and Wednesday 17 January. Report Stage provides an opportunity for the Government (and indeed anyone else) to revisit issues already debated, so there could be an attempt by ministers to look again at the Grieve Amendment (their only defeat thus far) as well as to address the other concerns of the increasingly well-organised band of dissidents around the former Attorney General.

The government has now signalled its acceptance of the Grieve amendment, which locked ministers into enacting the final Brexit terms in a bill. But the prime minister's comments about it, in her appearance before the Commons liaison committee, when she seemed to regard it as some kind of optional extra, have raised anxieties that the government may seek to dodge its requirements in some way - so ministers will be expected to offer reassurance, and the words they use will be studied with lawyerly intensity.

Plenty of Report Stage amendments have already gone down, from the official Opposition, the SNP and from the "soft Brexit" wing of the Labour Party, led by the former shadow chancellor Chris Leslie - and more are doubtless being cooked up over the break. As at Committee Stage, the most dangerous offerings will be those from backbench alliances across the parties.

Once clear of the Commons the bill heads to the Lords - where Second Reading is expected at the end of January (probably over two days). But the real action will start at Committee Stage, when peers start the delicate legislative dance that will culminate in attempts to amend the bill at Report Stage. Committee Stage is expected to start after the February recess and continue up to Easter, and the Report Stage, which is the most likely moment for attempts to amend, would then take place in the second half of April. Third Reading will follow in mid-May and what could be a very edgy bout of Parliamentary ping-pong towards the end of the month.

The Lords is, of course, overwhelmingly pro-EU, but it is also extremely conscious of its unelected status - which means that fears that it would throw the bill out and block Brexit are wildly overblown. That is not to say that peers will not dare pass amendments to the bill; they may well return it to the Commons, loaded with all kinds of booby-traps, all calculated to be awkward for the government whips to overturn.

Media caption,
Political review of 2017: May, Corbyn, Brexit and election

But, oddly, the Grieve amendment which requires a final Brexit Bill to go through the Commons and Lords, once a divorce deal is agreed, may mean that some peers decide that the toughest confrontations (over membership of the Customs Union, Freedom of Movement, etc) can be postponed until an actual deal is before them, and possibly be avoided altogether.

That Brexit Bill - which would give Parliament a real opportunity to insist on changes, if it didn't like the deal struck by the government - would need to be ready in October or November, to allow time for any renegotiation that might be required.

So the Grieve amendment gives Parliament a chance to exert real control over the Brexit process. And that could mean a serious smackdown, especially if the prime minister can't achieve Cabinet agreement around the terms she extracts from the EU. The key factor here is the level of Tory dissent; and that relies on a number of rather grand ex-ministers being prepared to abandon the habits ingrained over decades of party loyalty, and take a step which could both end their careers and seriously destabilise their party. Membership of the Customs Union might just be a big enough issue to provoke that, but we shall see.

Most Conservative MPs are, I think, less interested in the theology of the Brexit terms than in keeping the party show on the road; their instinct will be to hail whatever deal is reached as a triumph, unite around it and move on. The emergence of broad outlines of a deal which gives Britain a two-year transition towards a "Canada Plus" trade deal have rather soothed Tory nerves - as have arch-Brexiteer Michael Gove's comment that the relationship could always be loosened later on... pro-Brexit MPs want, above all, to be sure of getting out on or about March 2019.

But the precarious mathematics of the 2017 House of Commons means that there are enough MPs on the soft and hard Brexit wings of the party to make trouble (yes, I know, 'hard' and 'soft' are unsatisfactory terms, but I have yet to find a better shorthand) and it could be that the final terms are dictated by some cross-party alliance. One hardcore Brexiteer suggested to me that a Norway-ish deal might be pushed through the Commons, with 40-50 Conservatives voting against - but with soft Brexit Labour MPs voting with the government. And the consequences of that for Conservative cohesion could be pretty nasty.

One intriguing complication is that just as Westminster is processing the Brexit deal, a parallel exercise will be under way in Strasbourg. The Lisbon Treaty requires European Parliament approval for the outcome of Article 50 negotiations to leave the EU, and this will probably involve the Parliament's Constitutional Affairs Committee producing a report and recommendations for MEPs to consider. We could be in for a new and novel form of Euro-Parliamentary ping-pong if the two institutions don't agree on something.

There are, meanwhile, plenty of other directions from which trouble could beset the government. One of Labour's successes this year has been to continually hammer away at the issue of universal credit. If the implementation of this mega-reform of the benefits system (supported in principle, across the House) goes awry, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of voters could be very unhappy. And the chairman of the work and pensions select committee, Labour's Frank Field, who is locked in a Twitter spat with Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke, is poised to pounce.

If the NHS runs into trouble over the winter there is an even more formidable alliance of select committee chairs positioned to demand action - health committee chairwoman Sarah Wollaston and public accounts committee chairwoman Meg Hillier have already made their concerns clear. The state of adult social care and the NHS, the strength of the police and the armed forces are all issues that could do real damage - and on the latter there is a real prospect of a backbench Conservative rebellion if a major cut to capabilities was proposed. Watch out for a backbench debate in the Commons' first week back, where the former shadow defence secretary, Vernon Coaker, a smart parliamentary tactician will propose a motion designed to head off further defence cuts. The state of public services could well rival Brexit as the biggest political issue by the middle of 2018.

One barometer of all this may be the 3 May local elections, where a number of city mayoralties and the London Boroughs are the big prizes. Politics is so fluid right now, and MPs are so uncertain of the public mood, that a debacle for either of the big parties could destabilise their leader.

A final thought. The centrepiece of the Parliamentary week is Prime Minister's Questions. But for all the instant analysis and faux-drama around this occasion, does it really matter? Neither of the main protagonists seems particularly good at the PMQs game and a series of scrappy points victories by Theresa May over Jeremy Corbyn did not seem to help her, or harm him, at the last election.

On a couple of occasions recently, I've heard Conservative MPs saying that Theresa May's latest 'victory' at PMQs shows that the Corbyn surge has peaked and that normal politics is being resumed. That seems like a remarkable denial of recent events, but we will find out how accurate that view is as 2018 unfolds.