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Passing legislation in time for March will be May’s litmus test

Following a month of speculation, the Supreme Court has confirmed legislation must be passed before the Prime Minister can trigger Article 50. This result was very much priced into the government’s planning; a draft version of an Article 50 Bill has been doing the rounds in Whitehall since November.

The only real obstacle would have been if the ruling had given the devolved assemblies a veto over the Bill. But the judges averted a constitutional crisis, confirming there is no formal role for Holyrood, Cardiff or Belfast.

As a result it was no surprise to MPs when legislation hit the floor of the House this week, which will receive its first substantial debate on Tuesday.

This is a hotly anticipated process with much at stake on both sides of the House. The one iron clad commitment this Prime Minister has made is to initiate our exit from the EU by the end of March. Confidence in Theresa May’s ability to deliver a good Brexit very much depends on her meeting this deadline.

Accordingly, the Article 50 Bill is short – just two clauses. This is important because amendments are only permissible if they are within the scope of the original legislation. The shorter the Bill, the tighter the scope, the fewer amendments can be accepted for debate.

The government has indicated it wants the parliamentary stages completed before the end of February – this is ambitious but possible. Ultimately there is little doubt the Bill will pass. MPs voted overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50 just last month and even agreed to the Prime Minister’s timetable.

Equally, for an unelected House of Lords to oppose the result of a nationwide referendum would be tantamount to voting for their own abolition.

However, for MPs the Bill is a golden opportunity to rake over the government’s approach to Brexit. Parliament has been desperate for such a high-profile moment. Everyone – be they grandee or grandstander – will have the opportunity to voice their view on the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

Amid this noise, the significant question is whether the government will be forced to accept a greater role for Parliament once Article 50 is triggered. Amendments to watch are those requiring the Prime Minister to regularly report on negotiations or those guaranteeing Parliament an early vote on the final deal.

These offer tempting rebellions for remain-backing Tories desperate to soften their party’s approach to Brexit.

Then there are questions of logistics. Conservative votes will be whipped hard but with a slim majority – and many amendments expected – it’s possible that the government concedes a minor change simply because they can’t get enough bodies in the House.

Already the Prime Minister has been quick to shoot a Labour fox by confirming that a White Paper is to be published outlining her plans for the negotiations. The government had already agreed to publish a written plan so branding it in official language makes little difference to the content.

For this, expect a padded-out version of the Lancaster House speech, released much closer to the triggering of Article 50 in March. Having just been forced to accept two weeks of parliamentary rough and tumble, she has no interest in gifting more opportunities for political delay.

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