The Brexit voting saga – early 2017

On March 13 2017 the lower House of Commons voted 498 to 114 in a final vote to allow Prime Minister Theresa May to invoke Article 50 and begin the process of leaving the European Union.

Before the final vote, the Commons rejected two amendments proposed by the upper House of Lords – voting 331 to 286 against a requirement for Parliamentary approval of any final deal – or no deal – with the EU; and 335 to 287 against requiring the government to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK within 3 months of triggering Article 50.

The legislation was then passed by the unelected House of Lords and Royal Assent was given on March 16.

On March 7 the House of Lords handed Prime Minister Theresa May a second defeat on the proposed law to leave the EU.
The unelected Lords added two amendments before sending the bill back to the House of Commons.
The upper house voted 366 to 268 to require Parliamentary approval of any final deal – or no deal – the government reaches in negotiations with the EU. It was the largest turnout ever in the history of the House of Lords.
Earlier, on March 1, the Lords voted 358 to 256 to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. This amendment would require the government to provide such guarantees within 3 months of triggering Article 50, the formal start of the process to exit the EU.

The Conservative government said it did not want to undermine its Brexit negotiating position and claimed unilaterally guaranteeing EU citizen rights in the UK without getting a reciprocal agreement could harm the interests of UK citizens.

There were an estimated 1.2 million UK citizens living in the EU and an estimated 3.5 million EU nationals living in the UK. The issue of EU citizen rights has both moral and practical facets and a number of individuals and groups expressed concern about the uncertainty.

Recent UK Home Office figures showed a sharp rise in applications for permanent residence and the government itself admitted more than 130,000 EU nationals applied for UK residency in the six months after the Brexit vote. Overall last year there were more than 200,000 applications  – double the previous record.

In the Lords votes, the government tried to apply significant pressure including unusual appearances in the House by both Prime Minister May and Home Secretary Amber Rudd who also sent a personal letter to every single peer urging no changes to the bill.

Right after its Lords defeat Theresa May fired a key rebel Conservative lord, former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine.
There were also significant speeches by two former prime ministers – Labour’s Tony Blair and Conservative John Major – opposing Brexit and urging reconsideration of UK withdrawal from Europe.

The Conservatives had the largest number of peers –252 –in the Lords but they were not a majority; Labour had 202 members, Liberal Democrats 102, and there were 178 Crossbenchers, officially unaligned with any political party.

On Feb. 8 the UK House of Commons first passed the Conservative government’s proposed law to exit from the European Union and send it to the Lords.
MPs voted 494 to 122 to approve the government bill – a short 137 words allowing it to trigger article 50. MPs had only 3 days to debate the bill in detail and all attempts to amend it were rejected.
The closest vote was 326 to 293 against an opposition Labour party amendment to give Parliament a meaningful vote on any EU agreement negotiated by the May government, an amendment now added to the bill by the Lords.

The Brexit issue has shaken the political establishment, the public, and the entire framework of the UK since the referendum last June 23 in which 51.9% of voters across the UK chose Brexit and 48.1% rejected it.

The May government took a strong position in favour of Brexit despite a small working majority in the 650-seat House of Commons – her party had been split on the issue of Europe for decades.

The main Labour opposition party was riven on the Brexit issue – and a number of others – but officially supported the start of the exit process, hoping to avoid further alienating the significant minority (an estimated 37%) of its supporters who voted to leave the EU in last year’s referendum.
In the final Commons vote 52 of 229 Labour MPs defied party instructions to vote with the government.

The Scottish National Party was unified in opposition to Brexit, wanted to stay in the EU, was supported by more than 60% of Scottish voters in the referendum, and won a vote in the devolved Scottish Parliament 90 to 34 to oppose the UK government on Brexit.
Its arguments for Scottish independence saw a boost in the opinion polls during the Brexit debate.

The UK Liberal Democrats – partners with the Conservatives in the coalition government preceding Mrs. May’s – officially oppose Brexit.

Prime Minister May was forced to allow Parliament to vote by the UK Supreme Court.
It upheld the supremacy of Parliament in a ruling on January 24, rejecting claims by May’s Conservative government that it could use executive powers and avoid consulting Parliament.
In a historically rare occurrence, all 11 justices heard the landmark case and voted 8-3 against the government – full details are here from the Supreme Court and the Telegraph newspaper with multiple media reports available online such as the Independent, the Guardian, the Express and many others.

Besides having its refusal to introduce legislation on triggering Brexit overturned, the Conservative government was also forced to reverse its refusal to provide details on its Brexit plans after a potential revolt by some of its own MPs. Those plans were finally outlined in a white paper presented to Parliament on Feb. 2.

Commons votes for Article 50
Lords hand May second defeat on proposed law to leave the EU
Lords try to guarantee rights of EU citizens
UK and EU citizens
Sharp rise in applications for permanent UK residence
Government says more than 130,000 EU nationals apply for UK residency
Theresa May fires key rebel Conservative lord
Commons passes Conservative government proposed law
SNP gets public opinion boost
UK Supreme Court upholds supremacy of Parliament
Supreme Court ruling
Supreme Court full judgment
The Independent on court ruling
The Guardian on court ruling
The Express on court ruling
Government outlines Brexit plans