As if last week wasn’t fraught enough in British politics, this week promises to present even more drama and cliff hangers than a Latin American telenovela.
Hot on the heels of a week that saw one senior Cabinet Secretary threaten to resign and another openly criticise the pace and direction of Brexit negotiations (albeit in leaked audio recording), this week brings two days of voting on key legislation in the House of Commons.
The EU Withdrawal Bill will repeal the European Communities Act of 1972 and take all EU legislation onto the British statute books once the UK leaves the EU.
This bill covers every aspect of British life from finance to the environment. Because it is such key legislation, the bill currently moving through the Commons and the Lords has been recast and revamped as it makes its way through parliament.
Nowhere was this more evident than when it reached the House of Lords where 15 amendments were attached to it. Most of those are aimed at diluting or softening the British government’s approach to Brexit. It’s those amendments that will be voted on over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday this week.
Some of the amendments will be more contentious than others. There are key areas on which the government does not want to give ground, worried that it will make the difficult job of Brexit even more difficult.
The wafer-thin majority that Theresa May enjoys means that no assumptions can be made about her ability to get her way. A band of 11 rebels within her own party has previously defeated the government on Brexit legislation. That same band of rebels is of course now being watched closely to see will they do the same in the coming days or if their numbers increase even further.
The specific votes to watch out for include one demanding that the UK stays in the European Economic Area post-Brexit (the so-called Norway option), an amendment to agree a customs union with the EU after Brexit, and an amendment on a meaningful vote for MPs on any final Brexit deal. It’s this final one that will be the most controversial.
Parliament has been promised a vote on the deal but many Remain supporting MPs want to be sure it is not simply a take it or leave it vote i.e. if they vote against any deal then the only other option is that the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal at all.
If this amendment passes it would hand far more control of the Brexit process to a parliament, two thirds of which support remaining in the EU. Not surprisingly, that is not something which the British government wants.
So what happens if Theresa May loses that vote, or indeed others over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday? It doesn’t mean that her government falls but it would weaken her even further at home. It would also potentially weaken her hand in Brussels negotiations if it’s clear that it’s not just her government but also the British parliament that will be key to the final deal.
Oddly though, it’s Theresa May’s weakness last week that has the potential to make her stronger this week.
Last week was a brutal one for Mrs May with open (or more accurately, even more open than usual) rebellion amongst her Brexiteer ministers. That has given pause for thought to some MP’s who might have wanted to rebel against their leader.
The general consensus was that if Brexit Secretary David Davis had resigned, other Brexiteers would probably have followed.
Mrs May’s leadership was not going to survive that, and her government was unlikely to survive it either. That gave many MPs a sobering look once again at just how precarious Mrs May’s position remains, and to think about who might have taken over from her had she been forced out.
On the basis that all bets are off as to what would happen if Mrs May was gone, some rebels may now be rethinking what they will do over the coming days. Do they want to put even more pressure on the embattled prime minister and potentially end up with a prime minister they disagree with even more than her?
Today, Theresa May met her backbench MPs, calling on them to show unity and telling them that this was vital legislation to make sure the UK’s statute books are ready for Brexit day.
Theresa May has called for unity before, and while it may often look like that has been in short supply, remember she is still prime minister 12 months on from the last general election. No one would have bet on that either.