Isabel Hardman

What can ministers do to calm the EU withdrawal bill row?

What can ministers do to calm the EU withdrawal bill row?
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The EU withdrawal bill debate is winding on, with MPs criticising the ‘power grab’ planned by ministers. There won’t be any votes until Monday, and unless something changes, it looks as though the legislation will pass its second reading. Assuming that this is the case, it is much more useful to look at who is threatening to make amendments to the bill at Committee stage. The tone of the Brexit-sceptics so far has largely been reasonably respectful, as they are trying to encourage ministers to make concessions ahead of that. It is rare for a government to be defeated in a committee stage vote, but this bill is different as it goes before a committee of the whole house, rather than a smaller group of MPs reflecting the political balance of the Commons. 

Both Theresa May and her second-in-command Damian Green have made it clear in the past few days that they would listen to MPs about their concerns on statutory instruments. Some in government do privately suspect MPs are using the Henry VIII powers as a displacement activity which allows them to feel as though they are doing something about Brexit without actually voting against it. 

It is true that MPs don’t normally make a fuss about the use of statutory instruments to introduce major policy changes. But it is also now the case that Henry VIII powers have become the major ground for conflict on the bill, and whether or not the rebels’ concerns are valid, ministers realise that they’ll have to make some kind of move to calm the row. Whether or not the rebels accept a token move that doesn’t really water down the extent of powers ministers are granting themselves depends on how many MPs are really concerned about the level of scrutiny policy changes as a result of Brexit will get, or whether they want to appear to be improving the Brexit bill and claim a quick victory.