Devil's in details after first Brexit win

Editorial | 13 Sep 2017

It was a win for Prime Minister Theresa May when British lawmakers voted 326 to 290 to allow the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to proceed to the next stage of scrutiny.

But it was only a small victory.

The pound immediately strengthened, although it is still struggling near a decade low. Perhaps the market felt that no matter how small a step it was, the win's big enough to prove May is able to keep things moving, despite her setback in the June snap election that cost the Conservatives their majority in Westminster.

Had the members of parliament voted against the bill, it could have led to chaos all around, as May would inevitably face new leadership challenges.

Little objection had been voiced since she first introduced the idea - without giving specifics - months ago a document aimed at repealing the 1972 Act that took Britain into the European Economic Community.

Since a large number of EU rules and regulations have been included in the law books, the repeal bill would also adopt them locally.

It was thought to be as simple as that: until the government announced the full text that upset the opposition and some Conservatives. In the small print is a provision giving government ministers "Henry VIII" powers to edit the secondary laws without needing parliamentary approval. That immediately smacked, to lawmakers, of a power grab.

To refresh your memory, Henry, the king of England from 1509 to 1547, was best known for radical changes to the English Constitution, as well as for his six marriages - including sending wives who fell out of favor to the dreaded Tower of London.

Complicating the current situation was the revelation of a leaked Home Office document that May planned to end the free movement of EU nationals immediately after Brexit.

According to the document, there would be tight restrictions to deter all but highly skilled EU workers from moving to Britain. Critics called the plan "a blueprint to strangle London's economy."

To secure support, Brexit Secretary David Davis hinted at a willingness to accommodate "improvements." Monday's debate might not be as lengthy as what Hong Kong has had in the Legislative Council, but it was surely long enough to tire everybody after more than 13 hours of heated exchanges.

A breakdown of the 326-290 vote margin showed seven Labor MPs rebelled, defying a party order for a concerted vote against the bill. While the popularity of Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn has increased after the snap poll, it's apparent that a number of his party's MPs are still opposed to him.

The withdrawal bill was backed by all Tory MPs. But it doesn't mean May can be 100 percent certain of their support when it comes to the final reading next month, because a small number of the Conservatives are unhappy with the document.

Just as the first hurdle was cleared by the PM, the unhappy contingent of Tories was already proposing amendments.

If it was a small victory for May, the real challenge has yet to come.

In the next stage, the debate will be line by line, during which anything is possible - especially so when it comes to politics.

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