The UK’s bill to start the process of overturning EU law passed its first parliamentary test on Monday (11 September), but Conservative back-bench MPs warned that controversial plans for the government to overturn EU laws by executive order would have to be scrapped.
The EU Withdrawal Bill passed its second reading late on Monday night by 326 to 290, after nine hours of debate and contributions by 107 MPs.
The bill unpicks the 1972 European Communities Act, which took the UK into the then European Economic Community. It also converts all existing EU laws into UK law.
The government majority was no surprise – veteran pro-European Ken Clarke was the only Tory not to vote with the government – but the debate indicated that ministers will have to make concessions in the coming weeks to head off rebellions by Conservative MPs.
Twenty-one Labour MPs defied their party whip to either abstain or vote with the government in favour of the bill. Most of the 14 Labour MPs to abstain backed the Remain campaign in the 2016 referendum but represent northern constituencies with large Leave majorities.
The Labour rebels broke from their party’s new “soft Brexit” position, which seeks to keep Britain within both the single market and customs union during any post-2019 transitional period.
Rebellions against the Conservative government are more likely following the committee stage of the bill when hundreds of amendments will be debated. MPs formed a lengthy queue to table amendments immediately after the vote.
Most likely to be revised are the government’s plans to use so-called Henry VIII clauses – which date back to the executive orders used by the Tudor monarch – to table between 800 and 1,000 pieces of secondary law, on top of the over 20,000 EU regulations, directives and UK laws currently in place.
In a bid to head off concerns led by former attorney general Dominic Grieve and former constitutional affairs minister John Penrose, about legislating on Brexit by executive order, the government is likely to agree on a system that would establish an external expert committee to advise the government on new laws that would change or remove the existing EU rules.
Opening the debate, Brexit secretary David Davis told MPs that the bill would ensure that the UK would leave the EU “safe in the knowledge that we are ready for day one of exit”, adding that “a vote against this bill is a vote for a chaotic exit from the European Union.”
For his part, Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, insisted that the bill contained so many “fundamental flaws” that it was unlikely to become “fit for purpose”.
The passing of the Withdrawal Bill draws parallels to the scrutiny of the Maastricht treaty in 1993 which nearly toppled John Major’s government.
According to the draft programme, the EU Withdrawal Bill will be debated for eight days – spread between October and November – compared to the 22 days for Maastricht. However, justice secretary David Lidington hinted that the time could be extended and that the government would “consider that very seriously and carefully indeed”.
Meanwhile, the UK’s trades union congress kicked off the four week party conference season on Monday (11 September) by agreeing that the UK should permanently remain in the single market.
Outside parliament, a group of Remain supporters are maintaining a vigil in front of Parliament and Downing Street.
“This is not finished,” one of them told EUobserver.