Five more takeouts from the Brexit bill

Mark D'Arcy
Parliamentary correspondent

Image source, PA

The Brexit bill has completed its progress through the House of Commons - and is winging its way to the Lords.

Here are five more takeouts from the bill...

The Tory Remain faction is a paper tiger

For all the ominous rumblings that vast armies of guerrilla pro-EU Conservative MPs were poised to ambush and annihilate the Article 50 Bill, the government majority never came under serious threat in any of the votes at committee stage or third reading (and, of course, there was a thumping majority at second reading, too).

The only time the government whips needed more than the fingers of one hand to count the rebels came on the "meaningful vote amendment" put by Labour, with the aim of ensuring that Parliament was not presented with a Hobson's Choice between accepting whatever deal had been negotiated by the government, or leaving the EU and trading with it on World Trade Organisation terms.

Seven Tories broke ranks on that issue - but others were prepared to accept the assurances offered by the Brexit Minister David Jones, which were just enough to splinter the evidently fragile unity in the Tory Remain camp.

The former Euro-rebels (the new Brexit establishment) scoffed at their performance…."soft, complacent, effete, useless, leverage-denying dolts" was the verdict of one.

Another veteran Brexiteer mused that they were mostly novice plotters, lacking the case hardening acquired from years of backbench conspiracy.

On this showing the government whips have little to fear.

Looking for a quiet spot to record an interview last week, I opened a committee room door and found myself staring into the alarmed faces of the entire Labour Remain faction, in plenary session.

The tableau reminded me of those 17th Century prints of the Gunpowder Plot….but what is quite clear is that the Labour Remainers are a cohesive organised group in a way that their Conservative opposite numbers can only envy.

Of course, they've had plenty of practice, because most have been opponents of their current leadership from day one, and there is more than a whiff of anti-Corbynism in their activities. But now Labour has a party within a party, capable of out-organising the official frontbench, which is considerably less experienced - and the fault-line is there for all to see.

The government's acceptance of a parliamentary vote on the final Brexit deal does, potentially, set up a very big parliamentary moment, two years or so down the road, when that deal is done - and people love to pencil in the date for a hoped-for parliamentary Armageddon.

But, but, but...

First, it may be a semi-final deal, with the formal exit package from the EU and some package of transitional measures, while negotiations for the final post-divorce trade arrangements rumble on, which would rather take the heat out of proceedings.

Secondly, the can keeps getting kicked down the road. There were warnings that Remainers would derail the Brexit Bill at second reading, then it was going to be amended to jelly at committee; now it's Europhile peers who're supposed to wield the dagger….

Image source, PA

Or maybe the Empire will strike back when the Great Repeal Bill, the next big Brexit measure, hits the Commons. People keep talking up battles ahead, which then keep fizzling out.

Of course, no-one knows what the political and economic backdrop will be, when the Brexit vote comes, but I'm increasingly wary of oft-repeated, oft-disproved predictions that next time it really will be a proper battle.

While the not-so-grand conflict between Brexiteers and Remainers has dominated the headlines (in England at least), the SNP has been playing its usual smart tactical game, to dramatise its message that the Scottish government's plan to remain inside the EU single market is being ignored by Westminster.

Their MPs are quite happy to clash with ministers and deputy speakers to highlight their grievances - and SNP MPs have become adept at generating little social media moments which convey their position better than any speech.

Their whistling of the EU anthem, Beethoven's Ode to Joy, in the Commons Chamber was a case in point…. It was a bit wacky, a breach of stuffy Westminster protocol, eye-catching, ear-catching and captured in a YouTube minute - with a rebuke from the Deputy Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, for dessert.

What's not to like, when your narrative is precisely that Westminster is archaic and forever shutting out the Scottish viewpoint? And the SNP shadow leader of the House is threatening to sing Flower of Scotland next time….be afraid; be very afraid.

Conservative MPs are already thundering out their warnings to the House of Lords not to mess with the Brexit bill.

Their lordships are reacting with a trace of rather Gallic ennui. They're used to being threatened, to the point of being slightly bored by it.

And there are peers on the red benches who're aiming amendments at the bill. Labour plans to have another pop at passing their "meaningful vote" amendment; the Joint Committee on Human Rights' proposal to guarantee the status of EU nationals resident in the UK may fly once more, and the Lib Dems will certainly want to propose a second referendum, more in the hope of positioning themselves as the party of Remain than in the expectation of getting it through.

But even if a rainbow coalition of peers - Labour, Lib Dems, Pro-EU Tories and crossbenchers - was assembled to amend the bill, I doubt the House could nerve itself to insist on its amendments, if they were once struck down by MPs.

So while they would certainly have annoyed ministers, they would not have delayed the bill by more than a couple of days.

And it is a reasonable calculation to make, that with Brexit in full swing, ministers simply couldn't afford the parliamentary time to push through full-blooded, contested Lords reform.

Easier to live with the occasional nuisance of an obstreperous Upper House, than to waste a year and a half on reforming it, while imperilling all other legislation.