The Meaningful Vote: what happens next?

Posted On: 
6th December 2018

This week MPs will face one of the most consequential votes in generations. Graeme Cowie, Brexit and Constitutional Law specialist at the House of Commons Library, looks at how it will work – and what could happen next

Theresa May delivering a statement in the Commons
Credit: 
UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

The EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 gives Parliament a two-pronged role approving the government’s negotiated exit deal. Unless both conditions are met, the UK cannot lawfully ratify or implement the withdrawal agreement negotiated between the UK Government and EU.

The first condition is that the Commons adopts a resolution approving both the negotiated withdrawal agreement (a draft treaty text) and the framework for the future relationship (a political declaration; not itself a treaty). The process by which the Commons decides whether to adopt such a motion is better known as the “meaningful vote”.

The second condition is that Parliament must pass an Act containing provision for the implementation of the withdrawal agreement in domestic law.

Both of these conditions must be met before the UK formally leaves the EU under Article 50. Unless that happens, the default outcome is a “no deal” exit.

The Commons debate on the Government motion approving the deal began on 4 December. Five days of debate will culminate in a decision on 11 December. MPs will vote on up to six amendments to the main motion, then on the final motion, whether or not as amended.

At the time of writing, six amendments have been tabled. Two amendments (among other things) reject the deal (those tabled by the Official Opposition and a cross-party group led by Hilary Benn respectively), and 4 amendments seek a renegotiation of the Ireland/Northern Ireland backstop or seek to impose conditions on its operation.

What if the Commons backs the Government motion?

If the Commons adopts the original motion as a resolution, the condition set out in the 2018 Act will have been met: the Commons “backs the deal”. However, as explained before, the Government would still need to pass what it is calling the Withdrawal Agreement Bill before exit day. Without that legislation, the UK could not, for instance, honour the negotiated commitments for a transition period, the financial settlement, or enhanced protection of citizens’ rights.

If the original motion passes, we would expect the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to be introduced in the Commons shortly thereafter. This might happen before Christmas recess or on return in January.

On the EU side, the text of the withdrawal agreement still needs to be translated into the EU’s other official languages, and approved formally under the European Parliament’s consent procedure. We don’t expect that vote to happen until March.

What if the Commons rejects or amends the Government motion?

The Commons might simply vote down the motion, or adopt an amended motion that explicitly rejects one or both of the agreements. The Commons would then have decided not to approve the deal. We would not then expect the Government to bring forward the Withdrawal Agreement Bill at that stage.

Were there any doubt as to whether any amended resolution constituted approval, the Government would likely take advice and express a view as to whether approval had been given, before deciding whether to introduce the Bill.

If the deal is not approved, the Government must make a statement in writing by 1 January 2019 setting out:

how [it] proposes to proceed in relation to negotiations for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union.

The Commons must then, within seven sitting days of the statement, debate a motion, to be moved by a Minister of the Crown, which is:

in neutral terms, to the effect that the House of Commons has considered the matter of the statement.

A “neutral” motion does not as such “approve” anything, but simply notes that a debate on a subject matter took place. Normally, amendments cannot be tabled to neutral motions: the House’s Standing Orders prohibit it. However, the House approved an amendment to the Business of the House motion on 4 December, moved by Dominic Grieve, disapplying Standing Order 24B. This means that any motion on the Government’s proposed next steps would be amendable.

Whether or not the Commons adopts a subsequent motion is of no immediate legal consequence. Adopting a resolution of the House cannot, itself, affect the operation of Article 50 in EU law, under which (by default) the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019. Nevertheless, such a debate would let MPs express their views on the Government’s proposed contingency plans, and seek (politically) to influence those plans.

Could the Government make a second attempt at the ‘meaningful vote’?

If an approval motion doesn’t pass first time around, nothing in the 2018 Act prevents the Government from bringing forward another approval motion at a later date.

Although, as Clerk of the House David Natzler said in October, there is a “general rule against” the House voting twice on the same question in the same session, this rule is not intended to “obstruct the will of the House”. As he noted that, even if the motion itself were the same, there may have been a change in the intervening period. A change could be either to the negotiated texts themselves, or in the “underlying political reality”.

Graeme Cowie is Senior Clerk and Brexit and Constitutional Law specialist at the House of Commons Library @commonslibrary