Meaningful vote: What next?

This evening, parliament will take one of its biggest decisions in living memory as it meets to vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal. The significance of the ‘meaningful vote’ should not be understated: it is the first time parliament has been able to formally pass judgment on the course of Brexit negotiations.

Theresa May’s task of securing a parliamentary majority in favour of her deal has been an uphill battle, and it looks like one she will lose. The loss is widely expected to be by a margin of anywhere between 100 and 200+ and will be a clear signal to the government that parliament will not approve anything resembling the deal currently on the table. This will throw the UK into uncharted waters, and where we go next remains unknown.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen parliament attempting to ‘take back control’ of Brexit negotiations. A successful amendment put forward by Dominic Grieve last week (and controversially allowed by the speaker) means that if the vote is lost, the government will have to present parliament with its ‘plan B’ course of action within three sitting days rather than the 21 days required by the EU (Withdrawal) Act.

The government also suffered yet another defeat over its finance bill – its sixth commons defeat since July 2017 – making Theresa May’s government the first to lose a vote on a finance bill since James Callaghan’s Labour administration in 1978. The successful amendment, tabled by Labour MP Yvette Cooper, garnered support from a cross-party coalition of MPs. In theory, it sharply limits the Treasury’s scope to raise taxes in a no-deal scenario. Its significance, however, is in demonstrating a parliamentary majority against a no-deal Brexit.

A number of sources have been reporting that a no-deal Brexit has been ‘prevented’ or ‘averted’ as a result of these amendments. However, one uncomfortable truth remains for MPs: parliament can agree that it doesn’t want a no-deal scenario, but that’s it. There doesn’t appear to be a majority for anything. Until a positive course of action can command a majority, no deal remains the default option.

Assuming that the withdrawal agreement is rejected, what happens next?

Option 1: No deal

Parliament is unable to vote to stop no deal – they must instead vote for an alternative course of action. Over the coming days, we will see MPs put forward a variety of alternatives – as outlined below – but if no majority forms around any of these, the UK will head towards a no-deal Brexit. Both UK and EU law dictate that the UK will leave on 29 March, and failure to ratify a withdrawal agreement will not stop this.

In recent weeks, the government’s ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ mantra seems to have disappeared, and it is yet to be seen whether Theresa May will allow this to happen rather than taking one of the options outlined below. Ultimately, whether no-deal can be avoided will depend on whether MPs change their mind or compromise when faced with a no-deal eventuality.

Option 2: Renegotiation

It is possible that, if her deal is voted down, Theresa May could return to Brussels in an attempt to renegotiate. Given the expected scale of her defeat, minor tweaks will not be enough and a wholesale rethink of the withdrawal agreement would be needed.

A renegotiation would require time and most likely an extension of Article 50. It has been reported this week that Brussels is readying itself for such a request. However, extension requires two steps: first, all EU countries must agree to it at a vote of the EU council. Subsequently, the government would have to table a statutory instrument changing the definition of ‘exit day’ in the EU Withdrawal Act, requiring a parliamentary majority in favour.

Even if parliament agrees to this extension, it has been reported that as many as 15 EU member states are unhappy at the idea of an extension beyond May as EU Parliament elections take place in May, and those states have been promised the UK’s allocation of MEPs. Any extension is therefore likely to be fairly short, making renegotiation difficult. Furthermore, the EU has indicated its unwillingness to consider significantly different exit options. Perhaps only a softening of the UK’s position towards a customs union or closer alignment would prompt a shift in the EU’s stance, though persuading parliament of this is a different matter altogether

Option 3: Vote of no confidence

Labour have already indicated that they intend to call for a vote of no confidence in the government if the withdrawal agreement is voted down. This could come as early as Wednesday evening. Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, a successful no confidence vote allows 14 days for a new government to form and gain the confidence of the house. If this proves impossible, an automatic general election is triggered.

However, Labour’s nervousness in calling one thus far suggests its acceptance that the government is likely to win a vote of no confidence: it is difficult to imagine any Conservative MP voting for a likely general election and the prospect of a Labour government. Any hypothetical new government formed in the 14-day period would be likely to pursue a different Brexit policy.

Option 4: An early general election

This is the Labour Party’s preferred option. Again, it would require a Parliamentary majority – two thirds of MPs must vote for it under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – and it would take place a minimum of 25 days after any such vote. Again, given the electoral risk to MPs in their constituencies, it is unclear whether this option could command a two-thirds majority in the house. This option, too, would require Article 50 extension.

Option 5: A second referendum

An increasing number of MPs are calling for a second referendum or ‘people’s vote’, citing a number of polls that suggest increasing public support for such an option. In reality, it is difficult to gauge the nation’s appetite for further elections of any kind, and bitter disagreements are likely to arise over what form a second referendum takes. What is on the ballot paper and the method of voting will both be up for debate.

As with an early election or renegotiation, this option would require an extension to Article 50, the difficulties of which are outlined above. Furthermore, a second referendum would require a new piece of legislation to be put forward by the government to determine rules, the question and who would be eligible to vote. Even if the legislation for such a vote passed with an agreed format, question and rules, a statutory ‘referendum period’ would be required. UCL’s constitution unit estimates that the process in its entirety would take a minimum of 22 weeks, well beyond 29 March and most likely beyond the EU parliament elections in May.

Uncertainty remains

Every option available to parliament – and the UK – is fraught with difficulty, and goes some way to explaining why commanding a parliamentary majority for any is such a mammoth task. It’s worth keeping an eye on the range and scope of the amendments that are flooding in from all sides in an attempt to influence the course of things.

There is much talk of parliament pushing for a series of ‘indicative votes’ in order to demonstrate how much support each option has. Although these are not legally binding for the government, they may assist in demonstrating which options are likeliest to secure a majority – be it the ‘Norway option’ preferred by many Remain-backing MPs, the Brexiteers’ proposed ‘Super Canada’ deal, or even parliamentary control over the process, as backed by Nick Boles among others.

It is also worth remembering that all these options are being touted by UK politicians, not EU officials. Each suggestion would require complex negotiation and approval from the EU perspective, which is far from guaranteed. Only one thing seems sure: whether we have a change of government, a second referendum, a revocation of Article 50 or any other option, the uncertainty in which the UK is operating at the moment is unlikely to end any time soon.

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Avatar photo Ben Westerman is a senior external relations officer at NCVO, leading on Brexit work.

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