"Letwin-Cooper on steroids" Nikki da Costa on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill

Posted On: 
20th May 2019

Former Number Ten director of legislative affairs Nikki da Costa looks at the Prime Minister’s dwindling options for introducing her Withdrawal Agreement Bill

The week of June 3rd "is perhaps the messiest possible week to choose" for the second reading of the PM's Withdrawal Agreement Bill
Credit: 
PA

We now know that the Withdrawal Agreement Bill will be voted on the w/c 3 June. It is likely to be defeated not only because of opposition to the PM’s deal but because briefings from No.10 have suggested a willingness to accept amendments at Committee Stage and that whatever Parliament decides – so long as it decides – would be tolerated by the Prime Minister.

This in effect has made the Withdrawal Agreement Bill into a Trojan horse for Conservative MPs – they don’t know what they’ll end up with, but once the Bill starts to progress though parliament, it could become the vehicle to bind the UK to a permanent Customs Union or a second referendum.

We also now know that after the second reading the PM will sit down with Graham Brady “to agree a timetable for the election of a new leader”. The implication is that the second reading vote will serve as a proxy for a vote of confidence in the PM, incentivising Conservative MPs, already unhappy with what has been negotiated with the EU and with Labour and wanting a change in leader, to vote against the Bill. It is their only chance of forcing a decisive moment – after that there are no significant dates until October 31st and the end of the extension.

There are also few advantages to a vote that week. I understand that despite much speculation no decision has been taken on when exactly to hold second reading and the choices are poor.

Usually you try and choose a day for a big vote with some tactical advantage, for example it will coincide with a positive political moment, or simply maximise the chances that MPs will be willing to turn up, or maximise the time the Prime Minister can spend in one-to-one negotiations.

In contrast, Tuesday feels rather rushed as it’s the first day back after recess and doesn’t leave the Whips much time for face-to-face conversations, Wednesday sees Trump and the Prime Minister in Portsmouth but she could probably get back in time for votes, Thursday is D-day and looks rather crass, and Friday will be shaped by the results of the Peterborough by-election (it’s also harder to ensure full voting strength). It is perhaps the messiest possible week to choose for second reading.

But let us indulge the idea that the Bill is read a second time. What then? If an amendment is passed in Committee of the Whole House or at Report stage to require a permanent Customs Union or a second referendum, are there ways of blocking the amendment or the Bill at a later stage which No.10 could point to as reassurance?

In my view, no. If there is a majority in the Commons to amend the Bill in that way, that majority is likely to support the Bill at third reading even if the government move to vote against, and unless the government refuses to schedule further stages it will go to the Lords in that form.

The Lords, Remain-dominated, will likewise either accept the amendment or worse build on it, and then it will return to the Commons for ping-pong. At that stage, the government will have to either accept the amendment, offer an alternative concession which commands the support of a majority of MPs, or secure a majority to reject the Lords’ amendment out right. At best, they will be able to strip the Bill back to what was initially passed in the Commons, but no further.

This means that the only real reassurance No.10 could offer to Conservative MPs would be that if a Customs Union or second referendum amendment went in, they would refuse to schedule further stages for the Bill or in extremis prorogue parliament so the Bill falls, but in offering that reassurance they would disincentivise Labour MPs from supporting the WAB.

To put it more bluntly, introducing the WAB with no stable majority would be to create a government sponsored Letwin-Cooper Bill on steroids. 

Nikki da Costa is the former Director of Legislative Affairs at Number Ten and a Senior Counsel the Cicero Group