NI power-sharing deal and Brexit Bill cap strong week for PM

#Brexit special section Commentary News Westminster

Sinn Fein’s decision to back the deal returning power to Stormont has capped a strong week for Boris Johnson who can also celebrate the passing of his Brexit Bill.

Just seven days ago reporters, politicians and pundits were pillorying the prime minister for remaining silent at a luxury resort on a Caribbean island while the world pondered all-out war with Iran following the assassination of General Qassem Suleimani by a US drone strike.

#wheresBoris was trending on Twitter while the Royal Navy deployed two ships to the Persian Gulf but it took until Monday before Johnson addressed the issue publicly.

Brexit and power-sharing

However, events since then – in the Middle East, Westminster, Belfast and around Buckingham Palace –shifted the dial and resulted in a historic week for the PM marked by two hugely significant achievements.

Firstly, Johnson got his European Union Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) passed by the Commons with a massive 99 majority on Thursday, keeping the country on course to leave the EU on January 31. And then, on Friday night, Sinn Fein gave their backing to the power-sharing deal that will return a government to Northern Ireland after a three year absence.

Sinn Fein’s leader Mary Lou McDonald said of the deal: “We now have the basis to restore power sharing, and we’re up for that. There’s no doubt there are serious challenges ahead; the impact of Brexit, austerity and other pressing issues. But the biggest and most significant challenge will be ensuring we have genuine power sharing build on equality, respect and integrity.”

Little fanfare as WAB passes Commons

Brexit toppled the governments of David Cameron and Theresa May and has dominated the political agenda for the last three years, yet there was little fanfare on Thursday when the Common’s passed the third reading of Johnson’s WAB.

The new president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen was in town to warn about the lengthy, complicated phase ahead to negotiate a trade deal, while MPs debated amendments to the WAB – none of which were adopted.

‘The country delivered a very clear message’

The bill will face more scrutiny in the House of Lords where the government does not have a majority but they have been warned not to frustrate the legislative process with the PM’s official spokesman reminding: “The country did deliver a very clear message that they want Brexit to be resolved.”

It can be argued the British electoral system delivered that message rather than the country as a whole given less than 50% of the electorate voted for pro-Brexit parties – the Conservative’s share of the vote was 43.6% and the Brexit Party just 2% compared to the combined 50.3% achieved by Labour, the Lib Dems, SNP and Green Party (with Northern Ireland and other parties accounting for the remaining 6.4%).

But that debate has been silenced by the biggest majority achieved by a Tory PM since Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s – with Johnson transforming May’s minority government into an 80 seat majority, by winning just 1.2% more of the overall vote than his predecessor.

Big Ben’s will-it-won’t-it bong for Brexit

The Withdrawal Agreement Bill is likely to receive Royal Assent on Wednesday January 22, ensuring the UK leaves the EU on schedule at the end of the month.

But the will-it-won’t it saga about Big Ben bonging for Brexit continues – with the BBC’s the Week in Parliament programme reporting that whilst ministers are “sympathetic” to the idea, the final decision is up to “Commons authorities” to make.

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