Why Brexit’s Detour Through Parliament Matters: QuickTake Q&A

U.K. Said Planning Article 50 Trigger Near EU Summit

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May was hoping to bypass Parliament on when and how to trigger divorce proceedings with the European Union. Then the Supreme Court set her straight. So lawmakers are discussing, for the first time formally, a short bill that would grant her permission to invoke Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. At stake is whether May will meet her self-imposed deadline for starting talks by March 31 and if she’ll have a free hand to negotiate as she wants.

1. Where do we stand?

The 137-word draft law has cleared the House of Commons unscathed but suffered a setback in the House of Lords. The Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition parties united with rebels among May’s Conservatives to support an amendment that would protect the rights of EU citizens to stay in Britain when the country leaves the bloc.

2. Does that mean the Lords will block Brexit?

No. Members of the Lords are well aware that, as unelected lawmakers who hold their seats for life, their democratic credentials are shaky. To reject the result of a national referendum would spark fresh calls for the abolition of the chamber. It would also be out of character: The Lords see themselves as wise heads who temper government actions, rather than block them.

3. So this is just a formality?

Not quite. As the vote on EU citizens showed, the Lords won’t just rubber stamp what their colleagues in the Commons do. May’s Conservative Party doesn’t have a majority in the Lords, so if the two biggest opposition parties join forces again then other amendments -- like giving Parliament a “meaningful vote” on May’s Brexit deal -- stand a chance too.

4. If the Lords alter the bill, what then?

The bill doesn’t become law until both chambers agree, so any amendments in the Lords are sent back to the Commons. If the lower house votes the amendments down, there’s a danger of “ping-pong,” when legislation gets sent back and forth between the two chambers. But that happens only rarely: the Lords usually gives way to large majorities in the Commons.

5. When will Parliament’s role be over?

When both houses agree on the exact wording of the draft law and vote on it. The very final step is a mere formality: royal assent, or the queen’s approval. Right now the proposed timetable is for a final vote in the Lords on March 7. If altered, the bill will take longer to become law, but that will likely still happen well within May’s self-imposed deadline.

6. What does all of this mean for Brexit?

Getting Parliament’s consent is more of an inconvenience for the government. Investors are looking for signs of whether May can impose her Brexit vision or has to make compromises along the way. In the Commons, for example, May already made a concession to appease a rebel flank of her Conservative party. She guaranteed lawmakers that they would get an early vote on the final pact. That could come back to haunt her in 18 months, if the public mood has turned or her deal looks like a poor one.

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