Column / Brexit Briefing
Brexit and the moral high ground
By BENJAMIN FOX
Most politics students in the UK are taught that the House of Lords is like a guard dog without any teeth. If not nursing a bite mark, Theresa May will certainly be feeling nibbling at her ankles after suffering her second Brexit defeat in the House of Lords on Tuesday (7 March).
Peers backed calls for a meaningful parliamentary vote on the final terms of withdrawal, by 366 votes to 268. To the Lords, "meaningful" is code for veto.
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It’s not the first annoying setback for the government on the Article 50 bill. The Lords also passed on 1 March an amendment guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens last Wednesday.
The government has argued that while it hopes to strike a reciprocal rights agreement with the EU, it won’t accept the amendment.
MPs are likely to vote this week to strike out the Lords’ amendment, and a game of parliamentary ping-pong is probably going to take up most of March. Any plans to trigger Article 50 at this week’s European Council summit have had to be delayed.
The main parliamentary committee on Brexit has scarcely been more helpful to the government.
A report published by the cross-party Exiting the EU Committee on Sunday (5 March) unanimously agreed that the government should immediately guarantee the residency, pension and healthcare rights of EU nationals living in the UK.
For the moment, the various amendments and committee reports are a series of little, nagging headaches. The government wants a clean and unamended Article 50 bill, and it will get it if it hangs tough.
The Lords will eventually have to back down since they only have the power to delay the process by a matter of weeks if the government protects its majority among MPs.
Even so, none of the amendments or the recommendations in the various committee reports can be wished away.
One of the questions facing May and her ministers is whether to offer any concessions before the Article 50 process begins in earnest. This would buy some good will from dozens of Conservatives who are nervous at the government’s drift towards a ‘hard Brexit’, with Britain potentially falling back to a World Trade Organisation trading relationship with the EU.
It would also make it harder for the Labour party to oppose the government on every vote.
Finding a balance on how much control and influence MPs will have over the final agreement is the toughest compromise.
There is a certain irony that having campaigned to "take back control" and restore parliamentary sovereignty, MPs and Peers will be offered a "take it or leave it" vote on the Brexit deal, with no recourse to send ministers back to improve a bad deal. This "Hobson’s choice" is unsustainable, but don’t expect any concessions any time soon.
For the foreseeable future, ministers will be able to argue that promising MPs a veto could incentivise the EU-27 to offer a bad deal.
The most painless concession would be for the UK to guarantee the rights of EU nationals.
Brexit secretary David Davis has said the government had wanted to secure an agreement from other member states on the issue at the European Council in December "but we couldn't get everybody to agree at that point".
However, that offers little consolation to the three million EU nationals living in the UK, or to their UK counterparts living all across Europe.
“The result has left them living under a cloud of uncertainty. They are understandably concerned about their right to remain, and their future rights to access education and healthcare,” said Hilary Benn, chair of the Exiting the EU Committee.
“EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU… should not be used as bargaining chips,” he added.
The government is going to face dozens of close votes, make concessions and suffer defeats as it tries to implement Brexit. There will be two years of this - possibly more.
At the start of a hugely complex and arduous process, Theresa May’s team needs to make a bid to claim the moral high ground, and it should start by beating the EU to guarantee residency rights.
"Any deal is bound to be full of compromises which one group or another in Parliament finds difficult to stomach,” says William Hague, foreign secretary to David Cameron, and a former Tory party leader.
The sooner the UK government realises that all sides will have to compromise, the better.
Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.