Battles ahead for EU bill

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They seek it here, they seek it there - but the centrepiece of the government's Brexit legislation, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, seems to have gone into hiding.

Most Westminster observers expected the Commons to embark on eight days of detailed debate, in Committee of the Whole House, pretty much as soon as their conference recess was over.

Eyebrows were raised when it was not on this week's agenda - and they shot skywards when it was not put on the agenda for next week.

It is not a postponement, because the committee stage has never been scheduled, but something seems to be afoot.

What might it be? Challenged in Commons business questions by the SNP's Pete Wishart, Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom noted that MPs had proposed more than 300 amendments and 54 new clauses to the Bill and these were being studied by ministers.

And there is little doubt that some of these pose a real threat to the government's tenuous Commons majority.

The threat-in-chief is posed by amendments from the Conservative former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, to limit ministers' powers to re-write the law in the process of enacting Brexit.

Remember, this Bill is designed to allow the government to reprocess four decades of accumulated EU law into British law, so that the UK has functional legislation on all kinds of crucial areas, come Brexit Day.

The powers are pretty sweeping, because the Bill provides a toolkit to build an edifice which has not yet been designed - and Mr Grieve's amendments express the qualms of some MPs (including those of many strong Brexiteers) about their extent. He is the man most likely to amend.

Amendments raining down

I suspect the government is already whispering to him, behind the scenes, to produce an appropriate compromise, probably with the helpful endorsement of the Commons Procedure Select Committee behind it.

Was that the PM's bag-carrier, Seema Kennedy, I spotted in the public galler, when Mr Grieve set out his stall in evidence to the Procedure Committee on Wednesday?

If ministers can craft a compromise amendment, via ProcCom, face can be saved and division averted.

But with plenty more amendments still raining down, Mr Grieve is not the only threat. A recent addition is an amendment co-signed by the Nottinghamshire axis of Conservative ex-chancellor Ken Clarke and Labour's arch-Europhile, Chris Leslie.

This is a cunning production which takes the PM's commitment to a transition from full EU membership to Brexit, made in her Florence speech, and seeks to put it on the face of the Bill.

It follows her words precisely. But the killer point is that, if there's no transition, then a fresh act would be required to trigger Brexit day. In other words, if no transition, then they must come back and ask Parliament "what next?"

Now the government is not legislating against the clock as it was on the Article 50 Bill, when it was racing to get the measure through Commons and Lords before the end of the last Parliamentary year.

But its schedule is clearly slipping a little.

Packed programme

Next week is to be devoted to a little humdrum legislation, an opposition day debate and backbench business - that leaves seven debating weeks before Parliament embarks on its Christmas recess.

Take out one week to debate the Budget, and another for the November mini-half term (when a lot of select committee visits have been scheduled) and you have six weeks in which to cram the promised eight committee stage days devoted to the Bill, and the minimum of two days needed for report stage and third reading. Not impossible - but it does make for a packed Parliamentary programme, with little room for anything else.

There is rising speculation that the continuing delay in getting going reflects ministerial indecision about how to handle the amendments to the Bill - although another theory is that the government is waiting until next week's European summit is done, in the hope that it can firm up the terms of a possible transitional arrangement.

But the heat is on.

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