The Brexit vote explained
Next month MPs will face their most momentous decision for a generation. Sebastian Whale sets out how the process for voting on the Withdrawal Agreement will work – and what could happen next
On 5 January 2017, the Economist ran on its front cover a picture of the Prime Minister with the headline ‘Theresa Maybe’. The Conservative leader defied this depiction as “Britain’s indecisive premier” three months later by calling a general election. It was a decision whose consequences she feels acutely as No10 tries desperately to square the circle and conjure up support for her Brexit vision in the House of Commons.
Unless her internal detractors can convince enough colleagues to put pen to paper and force her out, MPs will be voting on May’s Brexit deal next month. So, how will the process work, and what happens if the Government is defeated?
The Procedure Committee has set out various recommendations on how the meaningful vote should operate. MPs on the committee say there should be at least five days allotted for debate on the Withdrawal Agreement and future framework, noting that six were granted for the 1971 debate on the motion to join the European Economic Community.
Sources indicate that the debate could start in the week of Monday 3 December, meaning a vote could take place the following Monday if ministers follow the committee’s recommendations (a Friday vote, though not unprecedented, is unlikely). This would leave MPs with the tantalising prospect of spending their weekends being lobbied and warned about the potential consequences of their decision making.
The committee also suggest that there should be at least one day’s debate on the Business of the House motion brought forward by the government. This should be tabled at least five days in advance and take place two sitting days before any debate on ratification, MPs say.
Under existing Commons rules, a vote on any approval motion would take place after a debate of no more than 90 minutes, and with only one amendment to be selected and voted upon. “There’s a general consensus that’s not sufficient,” Charles Walker, the chair of the Procedure Committee, tells me.
His team have therefore set out three potential options for the process of approving the Brexit deal. The first would modify existing practices to allow the Speaker to call more than one amendment at the end of the debate before the vote on the government motion. The second would be an adaptation of Opposition Day debates with the motion taken before amendments. And the final option would be voting on a series of freestanding and non-binding motions expressing alternative views before a vote on the main motion. “It was the view of the committee that their preference was for option one, which is to take it as you would a government motion with the amendments called first. The committee divided on that, it wasn’t unanimous. The majority voted in favour two to one of that option,” Walker says. “The procedures of the House belong to the House… ultimately this is for the House to decide.”
A source in the Leader’s Office declined to comment, but common thinking in parliament is that several days of debate will be allotted before the meaningful vote.
It does appear that No10 faces a potentially insurmountable challenge in getting the deal across the line. With the confidence and supply agreement with the DUP flatlining, MPs on all sides queuing up to disparage the deal and Labour almost entirely united in opposition the spectre of defeat is looming large. But with an updated draft of the political declaration about the future relationship now published, the PM will try and assuage Brexiteers’ concerns on the customs union and elsewhere. And with No10 at time of writing insisting Sunday’s summit will go ahead, we could be set for more last-gasp drama from Brussels, staged or not.
Under the terms of the EU Withdrawal Act, the government must make a statement within 21 days on the proposed way forward if the agreement is defeated. Speaking to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee this week, Andrea Leadsom said the vote could not be treated as a “confidence motion” due to the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. In other words, the government would not be automatically brought down if it was defeated.
But would the PM’s position be untenable? Tory eurosceptics who have yet to submit no confidence letters are thought to be waiting for the outcome of the vote. Other MPs believe May will stay in place. A Conservative “beauty contest” over Christmas “while the country’s in paralysis” would be a “grotesque spectacle”, Labour’s Mary Creagh – who will vote against the deal – tells me. “That would be the ultimate moment of them putting party before country. She’s locked in and that’s why she hasn’t been toppled before because they can’t agree on who to replace her with and how to replace her. I don’t see that playing out in that way,” she adds.
Talk in Westminster is that the government is already preparing to hold a second vote in the event of a defeat. Sources say No10 is banking on the risks of no deal concentrating the minds of Remain-voting MPs while relying on the threat of no Brexit at all to win Leavers round (many have noted the contradictory nature of these positions).
One senior Brexiteer tells me that without substantial changes the deal is likely to be defeated even at the second time of asking, with Leavers unlikely to waiver. It is difficult to see the DUP getting on board unless and until they are assured there will not be an effective regulatory border in the Irish sea under the Withdrawal Agreement. And Amber Rudd’s claim that parliament could block no deal also waters down the fear of the scenario unfolding.
For there to be a general election, two-thirds of the House of Commons would have to support a no confidence motion in the government (under the FTPA, a 14-day period is allowed for a new government to be formed with the approval of MPs). Some Labour MPs believe the motion would not pass given the lack of appetite on the Conservative benches for an election at this time. And the leadership has reportedly yet to come to an agreement over when to strike if and when the government is defeated on the deal. Some fear moving straight after the vote could look opportunistic at a time of great uncertainty; others want to ensure the party capitalises on the mood of the Commons.
For the more strident pro-EU MPs, the only way out of the quagmire is a second referendum. “In the end, it’s the only escape route for the government,” Creagh says. “They don’t want to talk about it now because they want to talk about their deal and get everyone nodding along…. But as the option is closed down, that becomes the only bolt hole.”
But there are significant obstacles to getting a referendum sanctioned in the Commons, not least that the government of the day would be required to introduce the necessary legislation – something the PM has been explicitly against. Parliament could act to try and force through a second vote, but it is unclear that there would be a majority. And it would take months administratively for the process to be put into shape, meaning at the very least Article 50 would need to be extended.
Brexiteers, including ERG chair Jacob Rees-Mogg, have warned that the PM risks splitting the Tories if she relies on Labour votes to get the deal through. But MPs in Jeremy Corbyn’s party say that little courting has taken place over the last two and a half years. “It’s too late for that. Time and time again she’s kowtowed to her hard Brexiteer right, rather than trying to build alliances,” says pro-Remain Labour MP Ben Bradshaw.
Perhaps this gridlock was inevitable. Those on either side have become more entrenched in their views on the outer wings, while those in the middle have often become disillusioned. But in seeking a compromise solution, which has done the rare feat of uniting the likes of Tony Blair and Boris Johnson in opposition, the PM faces a steep uphill challenge. As Remain-voting Tory MP Johnny Mercer put it to me recently, May’s Chequers vision is a “classic professional politician’s answer”. “It doesn’t make anybody happy. It’s the ultimate in not making a decision,” he said.
The upcoming Commons vote will forever be associated with this crop of MPs. It is one that is likely to come up time and again throughout their careers. As Charles Walker puts it, it will be “one of the most momentous decisions ever taken both for the House of Commons and for the country”.