As expected the House of Commons has voted decisively for the Second Reading of the Bill. The government won by 498 votes to 114, a majority of 384. A lone Conservative MP, Ken Clarke, voted against the government.
Why was this vote a significant milestone for the government?
The vote was seen as a test of the government’s Brexit policy. In particular, there were suggestions that a number of pro-Remain MPs in both main parties may vote against the Bill, citing either the need to respect the wishes of their pro-Remain constituencies or their own deeply-held views.
Second Reading is an important stage in the passage of a Bill because in giving the Bill a Second Reading, Parliament has approved the principle (although not the detail) of the Bill.
We can therefore expect to see numerous amendments tabled at Committee stage seeking to influence how Article 50 may be triggered, for example by imposing certain pre-conditions such as Parliamentary approval of the forthcoming White Paper or the consent of the devolved administrations.
In essence, the result of the vote means that the House of Commons has (as yet) not thrown Brexit off-track and that, assuming the remaining Parliamentary stages pass without delay, the Prime Minister is on track to trigger Article 50 before the end of March.
Although the Bill has now passed its Second Reading and will proceed to Committee Stage in the House of Commons, tensions both within the parties and the Commons as a whole are bound to be played out throughout the course of the Brexit process.
The remaining stages in the Commons will take place next week, finishing on Wednesday 8th February. In between the Commons and the Lords stages, the HS2 Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent.
The proposed programme for the House of Lords sees Second Reading take place between the 20th and 21st February followed by Committee on 27th February and 1st March. The final stages in the Lords will take place on the 7th March.
What are the wider implications?
The successful passage of the Bill and the triggering of Article 50 will see negotiations with the EU commence in earnest and possibly some form of Parliamentary scrutiny get underway. Domestically, threats of a second independence referendum in Scotland loom larger, as the Scottish government arguing it had been side-lined and promises of an ‘equal partnership’ of the constituent nations of the UK broken. The Supreme Court’s judgment that Westminster is not legally obliged to consult the devolved legislatures on the terms of Brexit is grist to that mill.
The Labour Party is deeply divided over Brexit, as was evidenced by Sir Keir Starmer’s solemn contribution to the Second Reading debate. Labour MPs represent a patchwork of strongly pro-Brexit and pro-Remain constituencies, and their personal difficulties in voting on the Bill are likely to be exacerbated as clarity emerges on the government’s negotiating stance.