May's Brexit Bill Returns: A Guide to the Main Voting Battles

(Bloomberg) -- Theresa May’s landmark Brexit legislation returns to the House of Commons on Tuesday, with the 15 amendments added to it by the upper House of Lords mostly designed to keep closer ties to the European Union and give Parliament more power over the divorce process.

The prime minister doesn’t have a Commons majority, and there are pro-EU rebels in her party who could side with Labour lawmakers to try to keep the amendments in place. Debates will be held on June 12 and 13 -- a concession from May, who wanted to cram all the voting into one marathon session.

But there are some signs the Conservative Party rebels aren’t in the mood for a fight -- at least not before a crunch EU summit at the end of June. One said privately on Thursday that they didn’t want to risk toppling May at a time when her position is already perilous. The government has also put down some amendments aimed at uniting the party around a compromise.

So the rebels might sit tight until July, when they will have another opportunity to force May to change direction and keep closer ties to the bloc. That’s when another piece of legislation will head back to Parliament: the Trade Bill, which has become a vehicle for pro-EU Tories to amend. They have tabled clauses to keep the U.K. in both the single market and customs union -- measures businesses want but May has rejected in the name of reclaiming sovereignty.

May's Brexit Bill Returns: A Guide to the Main Voting Battles

Here’s a look at which amendments matter most for the direction of Brexit.

On the EU Withdrawal Bill

The amendment on the customs union probably has majority support in the House of Commons, but the clause is so loosely worded that the government doesn’t consider it binding. It calls for a minister to “outline the steps taken” to negotiate “an arrangement which enables the United Kingdom to continue participating in a customs union with the European Union.”

However flabbily drafted the clause may be, defeat for the government would send a strong signal that Parliament doesn’t back the negotiating goals May is pursuing. And the fact it’s so softly worded might make timid rebels think they can vote for it without causing the prime minister too much harm.

This amendment gives Parliament control in the final stages of Brexit, preventing the government from signing a deal with the EU that hasn’t been approved by lawmakers. It gives the Commons the ability to send May back to the negotiating table, and probably wouldn’t let the government walk away without a deal.

Brexit backers see this clause as weakening the government’s negotiating position, as they want May to be able to threaten to walk away. It also negates the government’s threat to the rebels: That voting against May’s deal means in effect voting for the chaos of a no-deal Brexit.

In an attempt to prevent a rebellion over the meaningful vote, the government proposed its own amendment saying that if the deal is voted down, it must make a statement within 28 days setting out how it intends to proceed. It’s a significant weakening of the Lords amendment, and doesn’t appear to give lawmakers much sway at all.

On the Trade Bill

1. Customs Union

It’s an amendment that calls for the government to “take all necessary steps to implement an international trade agreement which enables the U.K. to participate after exit day in a customs union with the EU in the same terms as existed before exit day.”

The Labour Party’s official policy is to seek a customs union with the EU, so the amendment has a good chance of being passed if Tory rebels join forces.

2. European Economic Area Membership

The amendment, in similar terms, calls for the government to join the European Free Trade Association -- along with Norway -- and maintain its membership of the European Economic Area. That basically means full membership of the single market and accepting all of its rules -- including on free movement. The amendment is signed by 12 Conservatives.

The Labour Party leadership is pushing for access to the single market and something very close to the Norway model, but isn’t advocating EEA membership. So the amendment doesn’t look likely to pass.

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