8 hurdles Johnson has to jump to ram through his Brexit Bill

by Nick Kent | 22.10.2019

The Prime Minister wants MPs to pass his Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) in three days. It is an abomination of democracy to ram through legislation that will determine our future for decades to come.

Fortunately MPs and peers have ways to ensure proper scrutiny. There are eight hurdles the WAB has to jump.

Second Reading

Now that the Bill was published last night, the first debate is scheduled to start at 12.30pm today and last until 7pm, at which point there will be a vote. (See today’s order paper, page 1).This is the Second Reading, when the Commons is invited to approve the principle of the Bill. It is expected to pass.

Programme motion

If the Bill gets its Second Reading, two motions will then need to be approved by the House. The first is the “programme motion”. This sets out the detailed timetable for MPs’ consideration of the WAB (see pages 6-8). It allocates just three days to all its Commons’ stages – unprecedented for a Bill of such constitutional importance. This is expected to be today’s crunch vote. If the government loses, it will have to pull the WAB entirely or put forward a new programme motion, presumably giving MPs longer to analyse the legislation.

Money resolution

MPs will then be asked to approve the money resolution (see page 8). This approves the spending of public money necessary to implement the WAB. This may be less contentious than expected as the European Research Group of Tory MPs say they are going to support the Bill (they had previously objected to the £33-39 billion divorce settlement). But it will still be uncomfortable for these hardline Brexiters to vote in favour of money they say we shouldn’t be giving the EU.

Committee stage

If the government jumps those hurdles, the legislation then moves into “Committee”. In this case, the whole House of Commons will be the committee and MPs will go through the Bill line by line. The first part of the Committee stage is due to commence tonight and last three hours – before continuing tomorrow for 12 hours. Amendments can be tabled to any clause of the Bill. The key ones are likely to be on a customs union, a confirmatory referendum on the deal and giving MPs the power to force the Prime Minister to ask for an extension to the “transition” so we don’t crash out of the EU at the end of next year.

Report stage

Once the Committee stage is over, the House has one more chance to look at the Bill again. This is the Report stage, also known as “proceedings on Consideration”, when a smaller number of important amendments can be voted upon. If the government’s programme motion passes, this will happen on Thursday.  

Third Reading

At that point, late on Thursday night or early on Friday morning, MPs vote on the Bill – whether amended or not. This is the Third Reading. Should MPs have failed to get the changes they are seeking, they can vote against it. 

Then the Lords

If the Bill secures it Third Reading in the Commons, it goes to the House of Lords where the same stages are repeated. The difficulty for Johnson is that the Lords has no procedure for programming Bills. Although peers have considered some Brexit Bills very quickly, such as the “Benn Act”, the WAB is of a different order of magnitude. It will be difficult to complete all its stages by Sunday night as the government has suggested.

There is an additional problem because only a few weeks ago a group of pro-Brexit peers tried to filibuster the Benn Act. They can hardly argue that the self-same tactics cannot be used by pro-European peers now. 


If the Lords make amendments, the Bill has to go back to the Commons. MPs then consider whether to accept those amendments or not. If they reject them – or add any new amendments – the legislation goes back to the Lords again. This “ping-pong” continues until both houses agree the same language.

What if the Bill is amended in ways Johnson does not like? He might accept minor changes. But the prime minister has suggested that, if major changes were made, such as requiring him to negotiate a customs union with the EU, he would withdraw the Bill.

And what, you might ask, happened to that all-important Queen’s Speech which necessitated suspending Parliament? Well the “gracious speech” has been rather ungraciously pushed to one side and will not now be voted on until some unknown date in the future.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

Categories: Brexit, UK Politics

2 Responses to “8 hurdles Johnson has to jump to ram through his Brexit Bill”

  • Many thanks for this clear explanation of the parliamentary procedure involved in this Brexit saga ( not to say disaster ).

    And Cameron still thinks he did the right thing in calling for the 2016 Referendum ?

    How long can this madness go on for ? When will a statesman emerge who can bring the country back to its senses ?

  • Very nice to read the provisions that could be used “to delay the inevitable”. What really surprises me, though, is how come there aren’t any such detailed provisions to simply stop a prime minister and his chums from misbehaving. To the extent that these provisions are becoming a sort of National life-saving equipment, needed to prevent a self-inflicted economic crash.