BREXIT UPDATE 20: THE MARCH 29 DEBATE

Friday, March 29, two days ago, was meant to be the momentous day on which the UK left the European Union.  Instead, the Maybot presented her deal to Parliament for a third time, albeit in the form of only half of it, in order to fulfil the Speaker’s requirement of “substantial change”: only the Withdrawal Deal, not the Political Declaration on the Future Relationship.

Opening the debate, Sir Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney-General, said that the motion did not purport to be Meaningful Vote 3.  As he pointed out, the “Meaningful Vote” concept is enshrined in Section 13:1 of the June 2018 EU Withdrawal Act.  Clause (b) stipulates that the Withdrawal Agreement may be ratified only if “the negotiated withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship have been approved by a resolution of the House of Commons on a motion moved by a Minister of the Crown”. [1]  Since only the “negotiated withdrawal agreement” was under debate, this was clearly not a “Meaningful Vote”.  Nonetheless, Cox went on to argue, the legal right to bring the Withdrawal Agreement before Parliament on its own had been established by the decision of the European Council that, if the Withdrawal Agreement on its own was passed by the House of Commons, a technical extension till May 22 would be granted to pass the necessary legislation so that the UK could leave the EU in an orderly manner.  Cox claimed that it was “not unlawful or improper” to bring the Withdrawal Agreement on its own before Parliament for debate and vote.

Some very brief background on the “Meaningful Vote”:  in October 2016, the Maybot promised that Parliament would have a vote on any deal that the government negotiated with the EU.  But the government’s draft EU Withdrawal Bill did not give Parliament any say; the government’s stated intention to allow Parliament a vote on the deal remained vague (rather like its recent promise to allow Parliament two weeks of debate on the way forward).  A group of “Remainer” Conservative MPs, led by Dominic Grieve, a former Attorney General, challenged the government to ensure “a meaningful vote” (the term became taken up in common parlance) by Parliament before the bill was ratified — a vote that would be enshrined in law.  Following negotiations between the government and this Conservative “Remainer” group and the passing of complex amendments during debates in both Houses of Parliament, the final EU Withdrawal Act that became British law in June 2018 included Section 13 (1).[2]  It is because of this achievement that the whole current struggle between government and Parliament over control of the Brexit process is happening.

To return to the debate on Friday, March 29: Cox went on to argue that to approve the Withdrawal Deal on its own would be to ensure that the UK will leave the EU on May 22 with a deal; otherwise Parliament would be faced on April 12 with a choice of either leaving without a deal or asking the EU for a long extension that would require the UK to participate in the European Parliament elections.  There was no guarantee that the EU would grant such an extension; so the UK would risk leaving without a deal on April 12.  Approving the motion, Cox claimed, would provide certainty.

Against Cox, it was pointed out by several MPs, in particular the “centrist” Labour MP Hilary Benn and the Conservative MP (and former Attorney General) Dominic Grieve, that the deal cannot be ratified unless Parliament has agreed both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration.  There was no guarantee that the highly contentious Political Declaration on the Future Relationship would be agreed by Parliament by May 22; none of the outstanding issues could be resolved by then.  It was very probable that, as May 22 loomed, the UK would need to ask the EU for a further extension.  But it would be impossible for the EU to grant any extension at that point, because the UK would have locked itself out of participation in the European Parliament elections; it would have had to agree by April 12 to take part in these elections.  The EU has refused to allow the UK any extension beyond May 22 unless the UK participates in the European elections, which begin on May 23; the EU does not want the UK, with all its chaos and uncertainty, infecting the EU with its presence during the European elections unless the UK is taking part in them.  Dominic Grieve argued that passing the motion would be to run a very strong risk of No Deal; all possibility of any extension would be cut off by May 22, so the only alternative, if the deal could not be ratified, would be No Deal.

The debate was also notable for a powerful speech in reply to Cox by the Shadow Solicitor-General, Nick Thomas-Symonds, who insisted that the Withdrawal Deal and the Political Declaration on the Future Relationship were part of the same negotiated package; he quoted comments by Theresa May in which she herself had emphasised the inseparability of the two documents.   He denounced the “political chicanery” of the government in trying to separate them.  He argued that the Maybot could have tried to build a cross-party consensus that would work in the interests of the nation of a whole.  Instead, she had concerned herself with trying to solve the Tory Party’s internal political problems, allying herself with people who want to usher in a right-wing Tory Prime Minister to negotiate a Canada-style free trade agreement and turn the UK into something like Singapore.  He concluded by describing the motion as “a shoddy gimmick from a desperate government”.

When the vote was taken, the result was – as had been widely expected – a defeat for the government: the Ayes: 286; the Noes: 344; the government had lost by 58 votes.

In a point of order after the vote, the Maybot expressed her deep regret at the result of the vote.  She said that the legal default now is that the UK must leave the EU on April 12.  Any further extension must have a clear purpose, must be agreed by all 27 EU states and will almost certainly involve participation in the European Parliament elections.  She continued by stating that “this government will continue to press the case for the orderly Brexit that the result of the referendum demands”- which implied that she intends to present her deal to Parliament for a fourth time before April 12.  But she also said “We are reaching the limits of the processes of this House” – which has been interpreted by some commentators as implying that she could – as I suggested in Brexit Update 16 — be considering calling a snap General Election in order to appeal to the public over the heads of MPs.

In another point of order, Jeremy Corbyn took up the Maybot’s implication that she might seek to present the deal to the House of Commons for a fourth time, asking her to recognise finally that her deal is finished and to resign now – rather than at some unspecified future time – so that the UK can hold a General Election.[3]

The latest news this weekend is that the Maybot is indeed considering bringing the deal back to Parliament for a fourth attempt.   She is said to be looking into ways of bringing the whole package – the Withdrawal Agreement plus the Political Declaration – back in spite of the Speaker’s ruling.  There is speculation that, in a final vote by Parliament on the chosen way forward, her deal could be on the ballot (this could possibly be seen as constituting something different in the status of the deal).   Insane though it might seem to intend to bring back the deal for a fourth time, the Maybot’s rationale seems to be that the size of the defeat has been reduced every time;  she lost the first vote by 230 votes, the second by 149 and the third by 58, so, by a process of attrition, she might be able to scrape it past the line at the fourth, fifth or sixth try, especially as, the closer the UK comes to the new cliff-edge of April 12, the likelier MPs might be to choose her deal rather than risk either No Deal or No Brexit or a “soft” Brexit.

The House of Commons is meeting tomorrow (Monday April 1) to debate and vote on more options for the way ahead; and there could be another such Parliamentary session on Wednesday (April 3).  By April 12, Parliament needs to present the EU with a plan if the UK is to gain an extension; and the UK will also be required to agree to take part in the European Parliament elections and to begin preparations for this.

Meanwhile, Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, has called an emergency summit of the European Council for April 10, two days before the April 12 leaving date.  So it could well be that my imagined dramatic scenario (put forward at the end of Brexit Update 15) of a last-minute emergency summit by the European Council that will save the UK from No Deal by offering a long extension will happen after all on April 10.  That is the optimistic forecast.  But there are growing fears that the EU Council is suffering so much from “Brexit fatigue” that it will decide to cut the UK adrift.  A long extension has to be agreed by all 27 member states; and it is said that some – particularly France, traditionally hostile to the UK – are tending in the direction of supporting No Deal.[4]  On the whole, though, I still think the EU Council will not allow this to happen.  It is very, very hard to predict anything in the current chaotic and uncertain climate; but on the whole I still think the most likely future scenario is a long extension, the resignation of the Maybot, a Conservative leadership contest and a General Election.

[1] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2018/16/section/13/enacted

[2] https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/parliament-meaningful-vote-brexit   For a very lengthy and extremely complicated account, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meaningful_vote

[3] To watch the March 29 debate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtA1HFkIbIo

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-47756122