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Theresa May: She faces two sets of problems now (Raul Mee (EU2017EE) CC BY 2.0)

Can Theresa May deliver Brexit and hold the Conservative Party together? She has two sets of problems: finding a way forward on the UK’s future customs relations with the EU after Brexit, and getting the necessary legislation through parliament.

The key piece of Brexit legislation — the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill — made its way through the Commons largely unscathed. In the House of Lords the story has been rather different. The overwhelming Remainer majority in the upper house have made their weight felt during Report stage and Third Reading; the government was defeated 15 times.

The Bill now goes back to the Commons to consider these amendments. Ministers may choose to live with some of them. But others are incompatible with delivering the Brexit that the government has promised.

They include: Amendment 1, which makes the passing of the legislation conditional on the government seeking to “negotiate a customs union as part of the framework for a future UK-EU relationship”; Amendment 49, which creates a mechanism for the government to be forced by parliament to renegotiate its withdrawal agreement under a set of circumstances; Amendment 51, which means the government would need to get parliamentary approval for its negotiating stance; and, most spectacularly, Amendment 110A which mandates the government to negotiate continued membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), i.e. the Norway option, meaning that the UK would have to continue to adhere to all EU regulations and maintain free movement.

The government has control over the Commons timetable, so can delay when these amendments go back to the floor of the House. This is the tactic Theresa May has repeatedly employed in the hope that somehow a rabbit can be pulled out of a hat at a later point. Her ability to delay matters is now limited: the legislation needs to be passed well before the withdrawal date of March 29, 2019 and the government has announced the amendments will come back to the Commons this month.

The government should have little difficulty overturning the amendment which keeps Britain in the EEA. Labour’s policy is to support Britain leaving the Single Market; and even if that policy is reversed a significant number of backbench MPs in pro-Leave constituencies would certainly rebel — continued free movement is a non-starter.
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