Everything you need to know about Theresa May’s Brexit bill showdown

Britain's Secretary of State for Leave the EU David Davis leaves number 10 Downing Street after a cabinet meeting in London, November 29, 2016.

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Britain’s Secretary of State for Leave the EU David Davis leaves number 10 Downing Street after a cabinet meeting in London, November 29, 2016.
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REUTERS/Toby Melville

  • The House of Commons will spend the next two days debating and voting on crucial amendments to Theresa May’s flagship Brexit legislation.
  • MPs will vote on up to 15 amendments, with the first votes taking place on Tuesday evening.
  • The government is facing knife edge votes on the customs union and single market.
  • However, the most likely defeat for May is the meaningful vote amendment, which seeks to give Parliament the power to take control of Brexit if the prime minister’s Brexit deal is voted down.
  • Here is everything you need to know.

LONDON – The Brexit process has reached a decisive moment this week, with MPs set for two days of votes on up to 15 amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, Theresa May’s flagship legislation for implementing Brexit.

It is going to be the biggest showdown yet between the prime minister and the House of Commons, whose members voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the European Union. MPs from both Labour and her own Conservatives are threatening to vote against the government and completely alter May’s Brexit plan.

The battle has led several British newspapers to make some extraordinary warnings to MPs not to “betray” Brexit voters, with the Daily Express splashing with a front-page warning MPs that they face “peril” if they do so.

The first votes will take place later today with voting expected to go on into the evening. Business Insider will be covering the votes live.

Here are the amendments to keep an eye on.

The customs amendment

Conservative MP and potential rebel, Nicky Morgan.

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Conservative MP and potential rebel, Nicky Morgan.
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REUTERS/Neil Hall

This amendment – amendment 1.1 – would force May’s government to take steps to keep Britain in a customs union with the European Union after Brexit. Supporters of this policy argue it would protect British jobs and go some way to preserving the invisible Irish border, while detractors point out it would prevent Britain from signing its own trade deals after it has left the EU. Jeremy Corbyn has urged all Labour MPs to vote for this amendment.

This amendment looked incredibly dangerous for the government as recently as yesterday morning, with the vast majority of opposition MPs plus a number of Conservatives ready to support it. However, on Monday night, MPs from opposing wings of the Tory party – including soft Brexiteer Nicky Morgan and Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the pro-Brexit European Research Group – signed up to a new amendment. This amendment instructs the government to outline the steps it has taken to “seek to negotiate” a “customs arrangement” with the EU. As people have pointed out, “seek to negotiate” isn’t the same as to negotiate, and “customs arrangement” is a very vague term, which could cover everything from a full-blown customs union to a much more limited customs relationship. In other words, it is a fudge.

Nonetheless, it looks to have satisfied enough rebel Conservatives for the government to avoid a defeat… for now. In a few weeks time, MPs will vote on another piece of Brexit-related legislation called the trade bill. This is where Conservative rebels like Morgan, Anna Soubry and Ken Clark are expected to make their biggest move on customs. This was confirmed to BI last week by a leading Tory rebel, who said: “The real fight will come with the trade bill later this year.”

The Norway model amendment

Norway flag

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REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

One of the most talked about amendments in recent weeks has been amendment 110A, 51, which seeks to keep Britain in the European single market via membership of the European Economic Area after it has left the EU – aka the Norway model. Supporters argue it would protect the economy by preserving Britain’s place in the single market, while those against it say it would force Britain to accept EU rules it would no longer have a say in shaping, including the contentious free movement of people.

The Labour Party is particularly divided on this issue. Corbyn has ordered his MPs to abstain on this amendment, meaning they should neither vote for or against it. The party’s staunch pro-EU MPs have pleaded with the leadership to embrace the Norway option, as they believe it’s the best chance retain full access to the single market. This group includes former shadow Cabinet ministers Owen Smith and Chuka Umunna, plus Stephen Kinnock, Alison McGovern and Wes Streeting. However, Labour MPs from Leave-voting seats – like Caroline Flint and Gareth Snell – have warned Corbyn that an EEA-style Brexit would not respect the wishes of Leave voters. Such is the divide, MPs are planning to rebel against Corbyn on both sides. BI has been told over 60 Labour MPs will defy Corbyn to vote for the EEA, while at least 10 will vote against it.

Labour MPs planning to vote for the EEA amendment were given fresh hope last week when 13 Conservatives said they were willing to support the cause. One of the Tories on the list told BI that they expected more Conservative MPs to come out in favour of it. “An increasing number of colleagues are warming to the EFTA-EEA model on the simple basis that time is running out and we need something there and ready,” they said.

However, unless there are some dramatic developments between now and voting time, it is very unlikely that this amendment will pass. What’ll be interesting to see is just how many MPs rebel, and who the list of rebels includes. Shadow ministers are reportedly ready to face the sack in order to vote for a Norway-style Brexit.

The meaningful vote amendment

Shadow Brexit Secretary, Labour's Sir Keir Starmer.

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Shadow Brexit Secretary, Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer.
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Leon Neal/Getty Images

At the time of writing, the biggest threat to the government comes in the shape of amendment 49, 19 – the “meaningful vote” amendment. In practice, this would give MPs and Lords the power to decide what happens should they decide to reject the Brexit deal May hopes to bring back from Brussels later this year. This means MPs and Lords could tell May to go back to negotiating table and get something better, for example. As things stand, Parliament does not have this power, meaning voting against the deal could lead to Britain crashing out with no deal at all.

This amendment has been spearheaded by Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary. Its supporters argue it protects Britain from the disaster of a no-deal scenario and gives Parliament the sovereignty Brexit campaigners cited as a reason for leaving the EU. However, pro-Brexit MPs believe it is simply a plot to thwart Brexit disguised as parliamentary sovereignty. MPs on all sides see this as the most crucial amendment, as it has huge ramifications for the Brexit process.

There was drama on Tuesday morning amid news that Dominic Grieve, one of the Conservative party’s leading pro-EU rebels, had tabled a new amendment. Under the plan detailed in the new amendment, May’s government would have seven days to announce their approach should MPs reject the Brexit deal, and then until November 30 to negotiate a new deal and put it to a parliamentary vote. Grieve’s intervention could have spared the prime minister a humiliating defeat on her flagship Brexit legislation. However, a spokesman for May said this morning that the government would not be supporting it. The vote will take place this afternoon.

With almost all opposition MPs plus a significant number of Tories set to back the meaningful vote amendment, this now represents the most likely defeat for May, and the biggest chance of her Brexit plan being turned on its head.