May's Flagship Brexit Bill Back in Parliament: What Happens Now?

(Bloomberg) -- Theresa May’s flagship European Union Withdrawal Bill returns to the House of Commons Tuesday for detailed examination -- its so-called Committee Stage. So what does that mean exactly, and when will lawmakers vote?

The committee stage is when the real work of scrutinizing legislation is done, going through it line by line and considering amendments. We don’t usually see that much of it, because it normally happens, as the name suggests, in committees made up of a small number of lawmakers. But the Brexit bill is so important that it’s being handled by a “Committee of the Whole House” -- debated in the main chamber of the Commons, where everyone gets to chip in.

And pretty much everyone has. The bill itself is 66 pages long, but 188 pages of amendments have been put forward so far. Both opponents and supporters of Brexit see this as their chance to try to influence the process of leaving the EU. The prime minister only has a majority in the Commons thanks to the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, which makes her very vulnerable to any rebellions.

Already the government has offered concessions to both sides -- writing the “exit date” of March 29, 2019, into the bill to appease Leavers, and announcing a take-it-or-leave-it vote on the final deal in a bid to buy off Remainers. In both cases the offers may be less enticing than they initially appear.

The government has already won one key battle: It has limited the debate to eight days. If that sounds like a lot, consider the bill to approve the EU’s Maastricht Treaty in the early 1990s, when John Major’s government lost control of the timetable. The committee stage lasted 23 days.

Budget Interruption

What we don’t know yet is when all those days for debate will be. May’s government has so far announced that the first two days will be Tuesday and Wednesday this week, but beyond that, no further dates have been made public. Even if the next two days are at the start of next week, Parliament will then take a break for Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond’s Nov. 22 Budget and a week of subsequent discussion on that.

When we do get the debates, the procedure is that the amendments are dealt with in sections. The deputy speaker selects which will get voted on, discarding near-duplicates or those with little support.

Those following along at home can find the timetable, though not which amendments have been chosen for votes, at the end of the list of amendments. These reveal that Parliament will be taking things in four- or eight-hour chunks, with votes on selected amendments at the end of each section. On Tuesday, that means at about 6.45 p.m. and 10.45 p.m. London time.

The first four hours of debate on Tuesday will deal with Clause 1 of the bill. Clause 1 is 10 words long: “The European Communities Act 1972 is repealed on exit day.”

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