U.K. Lawmakers Given Two Weeks to Debate Short Brexit Bill

  • Draft Article 50 law just 137 words long to avert amendments
  • Opposition say time too short to scrutinize Brexit plans

U.K. Publishes Draft Law to Trigger Article 50 for Brexit

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government will push its draft law to trigger the start of the Brexit process through the House of Commons within two weeks in a rush to stick to her March 31 deadline.

The initial debate on the tightly drawn, 137-word bill published Thursday will start in the lower chamber of Parliament on Jan. 31, with a vote the following day. The government wants to limit the possibility of amendments by opposition lawmakers and pro-EU members of the ruling Conservative Party.

QuickTake Why Brexit Is Work in Progress Six Months Later

“I trust that Parliament, which backed the referendum by six to one, will respect the decision taken by the British people and pass the legislation quickly,” Brexit Secretary David Davis said in an e-mailed statement.

May was forced into action when the Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that she does not have the authority to formally initiate Brexit without the permission of lawmakers. Invoking Article 50 is the formal mechanism for beginning the two-year divorce process and starting talks on a new relationship with the other 27 members of the EU.

The draft legislation contains only two clauses, giving the prime minister the power to tell the EU that the U.K. is leaving: “The Prime Minister may notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.”

Too Short

Opposition lawmakers complained that the time allotted to debate the bill is far too short. The Labour Party’s David Lammy said on Twitter that it “shows contempt for parliamentary sovereignty” while his colleague colleague Ben Bradshaw called it “a disgrace.”

More detailed debate on the law will begin on Monday, Feb. 6, with the final vote in the Commons on Wednesday, Feb. 8. The bill will then go to the upper, unelected House of Lords. Former Scottish National Party Leader Alex Salmond reiterated his party’s pledge to submit 50 amendments. The SNP expects its 54 members of Parliament to oppose the bill.

“We’re going to fight this tooth and nail,” Salmond told BBC television.

Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas submitted a motion along with Labour lawmaker Geraint Davies, the SNP’s Stephen Gethins and Mark Durkan of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party that would effectively kill the bill by preventing a second reading.

‘Extreme Brexit’

“If we’re serious about opposing an extreme Brexit then we can’t just wave through Article 50,” said Lucas, her party’s sole representative in the House of Commons. She appealed to Labour MPs to reject the bill.

It’s been a week of concessions for May.  In a further climbdown, May announced Wednesday that she will publish her plan for Brexit after six months of trying to keep the details under wraps. Pressed in Parliament Thursday to say when the so-called white paper will be released, Davis said only that ministers would be “as expeditious as we can be.”

While Parliament is unlikely to vote against the draft law -- few lawmakers want to be seen to be blocking the result of the Brexit referendum -- it does give an opening for pro-EU lawmakers to add terms and conditions. May has only a slender majority of 16 votes in the 650-member Commons.

Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, told lawmakers he plans to put forward an amendment requiring the government to provide Parliament with updates every two months on the negotiations on a new deal with the EU. Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn told Sky News on Thursday he’ll issue a so-called three-line whip to his lawmakers to support the bill, essentially compelling them to do so or risk expulsion from the party.

Labour Orders

“We will put out a statement today to our members that we want them to vote for Article 50,” Corbyn said. “That’s clearly a three-line whip.”

Like May, Corbyn faces a rebellion of his own. Sky reported that members of his top team, including Clive Lewis, Tulip Siddiq, Dawn Butler and Catherine West, have indicated they’ll oppose Article 50. Bradshaw, a rank-and-file Labour lawmaker and former cabinet minister, told the BBC he would oppose the bill.

“I won’t vote to destroy jobs and prosperity in my constituency and all around the country,” Bradshaw said. “In my view this is a catastrophic, hard, Tory Brexit.’’

A total of 149 Labour constituencies across England and Wales voted Leave in the June referendum and 83 voted Remain, according to research by Chris Hanretty at the University of East Anglia.

“I fully understand the pressures and issues that members are under –- those who represent Leave constituencies and those who represent Remain constituencies,” Corbyn said. “Labour is in the almost unique position of having MPs representing constituencies in both directions and very strongly in both directions.”

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