It might seem odd that the government is so determined to reject the amendment which sets out in the Article 50 Bill the necessary steps for parliament to approve any divorce settlement with the EU or any new partnership agreement, given that the prime minister promised in her Lancaster House speech that the government would put the final Brexit deal to a vote in both Houses of Parliament – a position repeated in its White Paper.

Yet, within minutes of the vote, it had vowed to reject the amendment. And it appears to be allocating just one hour next Monday to debating and voting on each of the Lords’ two amendments – which involve the wellbeing of three million European citizens living and working here and the proper functioning of that parliamentary sovereignty for which the Brexiters campaigned to take back control.

What is there not to like about the latest amendment? Well it certainly does not slow down the triggering of Article 50. Indeed, the bill could become law instantly on Monday if the government accepted the amendments.

Is it because promising votes on any deal in both houses risks ending in deadlock, with one house approving the deal and the other rejecting it? Well, if that is a risk, it is one entirely of the prime minister’s own making, since she originally set out the formula in her Lancaster House speech. But it is not a real risk, because the government is free to seek approval for a deal through primary legislation, which ensures the primacy of the House of Commons.

Is it then because the amendment requires the government to seek parliamentary approval before walking away from any attempt to negotiate a deal at all and thus crashing out of the EU without one? The prime minister has referred to that as a possibility, so it cannot be discounted. But if such action can be carried through without parliamentary approval, where then is the recovery of parliamentary sovereignty?

The government has said that the amendment would drastically weaken the prime minister’s negotiating hand and result in our EU partners offering us a really bad deal with the aim of getting the referendum decision and the triggering of Article 50 reversed. The people using that argument are the same ones who a few weeks ago were confidently asserting that we had an incomparably strong negotiating hand because our EU partners were so keen to go on selling us BMWs, prosecco and Camemberts. 

In any case, it is a perfectly sustainable argument that provisions for parliamentary approval like those in the amendment would in fact strengthen the prime minister’s negotiating hand. After all, Article 50 itself lays down the provisions for parliamentary approval of any deal on the EU side and nobody seems to think that that is weakening its hand.

It really would make much more sense for the Brexiters to get over their paranoia about EU intentions and accept that the amendments will strengthen our negotiating hand, not weaken it. 

by David Hannay | 09.03.2017

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

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