‘Meaningful vote’ Take Two is now just over 24 hours away. Indeed, unlike the days preceding Downing Street’s last opportunity to seek parliamentary support for the EU Withdrawal Bill, Prime Minister Theresa May has been all over the airwaves and press in a last-ditch effort to win support for the deal in the face of almost overwhelming indications that it will be voted down. She didn’t say anything new, again attempting to scare Brexit-supporting conservative rebels into line by warning that “the more likely outcome” from a lack of support “is a paralysis in parliament that risks there being no Brexit." The EU played good cop, releasing a letter providing assurances on some of the most controversial aspects of the deal, especially the Northern Ireland backstop. The EU stood by a commitment to reach a trade deal by 2020’s end thereby avoiding need of the backstop. It was also open to extending the transition period if no trade agreement has been reached by deadline, to avoid triggering backstop arrangements.
Still, the letter and Theresa May’s appearances, another one of which is due in Parliament as I write, are unlikely to change many MPs’ minds. As such, the Bill will probably still be defeated. This will be followed by huge uncertainty as to what will happen to Brexit and the government afterwards. The myriad combinations of possible events make predicting what happens next impossible, but there are four themes worth watching.
- It is assumed that the Bill will be defeated, but the final tally of votes will be instructive as to how much momentum exists to challenge the legislative agenda and the government in the wake of Tuesday’s proceedings. Few MPs who are not government ministers or whips (about 100) and thus obliged to support the Bill have said how they intend to vote. Only 29 of 650 MPs have said they’ll support it. 69, including 14 Conservatives said they will oppose it. Excluding the 100 ministers/whips, how close the vote against the Bill is to the 521 of those who appear set to vote ‘no’ could be critical. If it’s above—suggesting prior supporters switched—the chance of a government collapse would look higher, since MPs who might support a vote of no confidence would be increased.
- Since opposition to a no-deal Brexit is not enough to stop it, Britain could still leave the European Union regardless of the vote outcome. There needs to be a clear majority for an alternative deal. But formulating a new deal would take time, so a delayed departure date would seem to be the logical gambit of opponents of the current deal. Only new legislation can change the date of Brexit. The Article 50 process also requires a unanimous agreement from EU member states. It makes sense to watch for signs that politicians are moving towards tabling emergency legislation that could change the date of Brexit.
- A large majority vote could also extend the exit process. This would be purely political and not legally binding on the government, but Downing Street would find a decisive vote difficult to resist. So again, watch out for motions calling for an extension of the process
- ‘Speaker’s Prerogative’: House of Commons Speaker John Bercow caused equal amounts of alarm and excitement last week by flagging that he might not be bound by convention in the days and weeks ahead, as is his prerogative given the lack of a written constitution. This suggests he could deploy an obligation to maintain an orderly process of government even whilst remaining impartial at all times. Depending on how to interprets that responsibility, chances of politicians wishing to disrupt Brexit could benefit significantly.
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