[Update 13/12/17 – The bill’s second reading has been put back to 27th January, suspiciously just after the ruling of the Supreme Court is expected. I think it is now fairly likely that the UK government will give the bill their support and government time in Parliament, and use it to get Parliament’s agreement to them invoking Article 50. It is hard to see how they could get a bill through by their end-of-March deadline otherwise. You’ve been warned!
[UPDATE 16/12/16 – This bill was not rejected at second reading, but has been rescheduled for Friday 13th January
Conservative MP Peter Bone has tabled a Bill in Parliament requiring the Government to give Article 50 Notification by 31st March 2017. This has been passed off by many as a stunt by a Eurosceptic MP to try to tie the government to their own deadline, and that it is bound to fail. I don’t think that it necessarily is a joke.
If I was the government, this is precisely what I would do. A nice, silly private members’ Bill that nobody really notices because it’s done just before a by-election and the release of the new immigration figures. This can get through the formalities of the first reading without much fuss, and be ready for a second reading on 16th December (according to the Independent). This avoids the government being contemptuous of the Supreme court by preempting it, and puts them in the position of having a Bill ready in January after the Supreme Court ruling that just needs a little tweak or two before it is bullied through.
Private Members’ Bills have been used similarly by governments in the past (remember the 2013 attempt on an EU referendum when the Coalition government hadn’t agreed to one), and it is not unusual for the Government to pledge support for, and give Government time to, Private Members’ Bills (for example, the recent Homelessness Bill).
The Government is well aware that it may not have time to get a Government Bill through by the end of March if it can only begin the process after the Supreme Court has ruled. By the second reading of this one the government and others can trot out the ‘People have spoken’ argument, and MPs will be too scared to vote against it. By the third, the Supreme Court will have ruled, and they can crack on having saved a couple of months in the preparation of the Bill while everyone was looking elsewhere. The government can also propose amendments changing or removing the date if it doesn’t suit them.
I might be wrong. I hope I am. This might just be a Tory MP making a point or seeking media attention.
Call me paranoid if you will, but, when it comes, the Bill that would take the UK out of the EU will not have a big red sticker on it saying “Remainers get angry now”. It will say almost exactly what this one says, which is “A Bill to Require Her Majesty’s Government to notify the European Council by 31 March 2017 of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Union.”
The Bill is here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2016-2017/0104/cbill_2016-20170104_en_2.htm
Some commentary from the Independent here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/the-government-could-be-forced-to-trigger-article-50-by-april-a7448011.html
[Edited to add BBC link on process and the possibility of a ‘Trap-Door’]