After 44 hours of debate, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill finished its marathon journey through the House of Lords today. There was some last-minute drama as the Liberal Democrats mounted a quixotic effort to scupper the bill by blocking final passage. Although their stratagem was overwhelmingly rejected by a vote of 95 to 340, the bill faces additional hurdles on its path to the statute book.
Despite the Government’s best efforts, peers made two amendments to the bill (one aims to protect the rights of EU citizens living the UK post-Brexit, while the other requires a parliamentary vote on the final terms of the Brexit agreement). As a result, the bill must go back to the Commons, where MPs will have a chance to accept, reject, or amend the Lords’ amendments (they can also propose their own alternative amendments).
Ministers will almost certainly try to remove the amendments from the bill. Although the Government has a slender majority, they will likely get their way without too much difficulty. Conservative MPs were remarkably united when the bill was going through the Commons, and Ken Clarke (a longstanding Europhile) was the only rebel.
If MPs delete the amendments or offer alternatives, the bill will go back to the Lords. Peers will then have to decide whether they wish to stick to their guns or yield to the Commons. In most cases, the Lords choose the latter route, but in this case, it may take them a while to reach that point.
If the two Houses can’t come to an agreement, the bill will be lost. But I can’t see Labour pushing things that far since they support the bill as a whole. More than likely, they will ask peers to insist on the amendments once, then throw in the towel. At that point, I suspect a lot of the Crossbenchers will follow their lead (the LibDems may decide to hold out until the bitter end, but they need significant support from Labour and the Crossbenches to prevail). Once that happens, the bill will finally be ready for Royal Assent.