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9 January 2019

Parliament moves to ‘take back control’

Brexit, Government Affairs

MPs defeat Government for second time in twenty-four hours as Tory remain rebels seek to thwart a no deal Brexit

For the second time in as many days MPs have defeated the Government in Brexit votes in the Commons. Today MPs voted to accelerate the process by which Parliament would vote on the Government’s Brexit Plan B if the Prime Minister’s deal is defeated next week. This brings the point at which Parliament really could force the Government’s hand forward and shows a growing cross-party attempt to seize control of the Brexit process.

What happened?

  • MPs amended the Commons Business Motion – which outlines the timing and procedure around a Commons vote – to ensure that if the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal is defeated next Tuesday (January 15), the Government must come back to Parliament within three sitting days (i.e. by Monday 21 January) outlining what they plan to do next. The Government would then have a further seven days to bring a motion before MPs expressing this, which MPs would be able to amend.
  • The Government lost by 11 votes (308 votes to 297).
  • Put simply, if the MPs reject Mrs May’s Brexit deal then the Prime Minister will have just three days to present her Brexit “Plan B” to MPs, and within seven days of that MPs will be presented with a motion which they could amend, forcing the Government to back their own Brexit “Plan B” or, potentially, a second referendum.
  • Today’s defeat follows a similar reverse last night, where 20 Tory MPs voted with opposition parties on an amendment to the Finance Bill that they claim ties the Government’s hands on tax-raising powers in the advent of a no deal Brexit. By doing so rebels signalled that they are prepared to try and stop a no deal Brexit, and claim last night’s vote demonstrates there is no majority for no deal.
  • There was a great deal of controversy about the Speaker’s decision to, against the advice of his officials, accept this motion in the first instance, with the Government’s Business Motion having been considered unamendable. This resulted in quite extraordinary scenes in the House of Commons as MPs questioned the Speakers decision as he responded that, as far as the Commons goes, his word is final.

What would have happened without this amendment?

  • Had it not been for this amendment, the Government would have had to make a statement to MPs within 21 days of Parliament rejecting the PM’s Brexit deal, with a motion being put before MPs within seven days of that.

So why does this matter?

  • This vote accelerates the Brexit “Plan B” process. Instead of having 21 days to determine what she wanted to do next, if the PM’s deal is defeated she will now have just three days to decide on her Brexit “Plan B”.
  • It also means that the point at which MPs can meaningfully “take control” of the Brexit process is also brought forward. The motion outlining the Government’s “Plan B” will be amendable, meaning MPs can reject the PM’s plan and instead instruct the Government to seek, for example, an EEA (European Economic Area) “Norway” style deal or a second referendum.
  • This would leave the PM with almost no time at all to go back to Brussels to seek new concessions if MPs rejected her deal, giving MPs an opportunity to tie her hands and greatly increase pressure on the Government.
  • This does not mean that the prospects of a no deal Brexit are eliminated, as the reality of the Article 50 process remains that the UK will leave without a deal on March 29 unless there is some kind of agreement on next steps. However, the ability of the PM to run down the clock on Brexit has been reduced, and MPs will now be able to seize control of the process much earlier than would otherwise have been the case.
  • That said, it also reduces the time available for MPs to coalesce around an alternative Brexit plan.
  • It has been noted that the Speakers decision to, against the advice of his officials, allow a vote on the amendment suggests that he is intent on using his powers in Parliament to support MPs in their attempts to take control of the Brexit process. This is yet another example of the strain that Brexit is putting on the British constitutional settlement.

What happens next?

  • It is important to remember that this amendment will only come into effect if the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal is defeated by MPs on Tuesday evening (January 15). And so if the PM is able to, somehow, persuade the Democratic Unionist Party and her own backbenches to accept her Brexit deal then this would be moot. The UK would then be set to exit on March 29 on the basis of the existing Withdrawal Agreement.
  • However, if the PMs deal is defeated next week we will now be looking at the first week of February as the point at which it could become clear that we are either set to endorse a no deal Brexit, seek a second referendum or a softer form of Brexit (which would likely require an extension of Article 50).

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