The latest Brexit update from Grayling Manchester

Thursday, 14th March 2019

Guest blog by Chris Peacock, Grayling Manchester

Over the course of three votes last night, Parliament again voted to kick the Brexit can down the road, set out its opposition to no deal and declined to attempt to make any legally significant changes to the Brexit process. Last night’s vote was another politically important statement that Parliament doesn’t support a no deal outcome. However, at the end of January Parliament passed a motion to rule out no deal. The political pressure yesterday was much greater but fundamentally Parliament just reiterated its view.

The original motion proposed by the Government ruled out leaving without a deal on March 29th but didn’t rule out leaving without a deal at a later date. However, this motion was subject to amendments and in the end this led to a series of votes.

The first amendment which was voted on set out that Parliament did not approve leaving the EU without a deal either on March 29th or on any later date. The Government whipped Conservative MPs against ruling out no deal and was defeated by four votes. The second amendment was effectively a vote for a managed no deal. This was defeated by 210 votes – even more votes than the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal was defeated by on Tuesday.

These events meant that the third and final vote was on the original Government motion but as amended by the first amendment. In practice, this meant that the third vote was simply a rerun of the first. Because the Government had not expected their motion to be amended they had indicated that a free vote would be granted on the motion. However, having voted against the first amendment, the Government ended up whipping against the third vote too.

The Government lost this vote by 321 votes to 278, with most of the Government voting for the same no deal Brexit which Cabinet Ministers had spent all day warning about. Even more unusually, in a breakdown of collective responsibility, four Cabinet Ministers, nine junior Ministers and two Parliamentary Private Secretaries defied the Government’s order to vote for the motion. The prevailing rumour is that they were told they could abstain in the vote by a senior aide in the Prime Minister’s office and for this reason they won’t be sacked.

The Prime Minister responded to the votes by reiterating that Parliament had indicated a clear majority for voting against no deal but that the legal default was still that the UK would leave without a deal unless something else was agreed. She then set out that today’s votes will be on a motion which does three things. First, it states that the Government will seek an extension of Article 50. Second, it states that if Parliament approves a Brexit deal before the 20th March then the Government will seek an extension of Article 50 until 30th June to allow enough time to pass the necessary EU exit legislation. Third, it notes that if Parliament fails to pass the Brexit deal before March 20th then the EU is likely to require a clear reason for any extension and for it to be of a time period which will require the UK to participate in the European Elections in May. Once again this motion will be amendable, meaning we cannot be sure what MPs will finally vote on.

Responding for the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn called on Parliament to take control of the Brexit process and committed to holding meetings with MPs across Parliament to reach a solution – claiming he was doing what the Prime Minister should have done. He also namechecked the option of a second referendum. However, further confusion about Labour’s position soon returned with Shadow Housing Secretary, John Healey, indicating that his party didn’t want to change the withdrawal agreement treaty element of the deal – only the political declaration on the UK/EU future relationship.

There were other notable interventions during the day. First, Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Chancellor Philip Hammond gave a series of blunt warnings about the impact of a no deal outcome. During his Spring Statement, the Chancellor held back £26bn of Government finances with the clear implication it would go on tax cuts and public services if a deal was agreed but warned that without it the money (and more) would be needed to react to a no deal outcome. Similarly, he suggested that the long-awaited Spending Review in which Government Departmental Budgets are determined would go ahead in the Summer, but that this is contingent on a deal. Gove also cautioned against no deal – going so far as to suggest that no deal would lead to direct rule in Northern Ireland.

Second, both Hammond and Gove set out how a softer Brexit deal could be reached. Hammond used his Spring Statement to suggest that the Government should reach out to opposition parliamentarians and seemed to hint they should agree a customs union– sparking fury amongst Brexiteers. Gove was more nuanced but implied that the coming days might see a number of indicative votes held and suggested that a customs union was the most likely outcome. However, he also indicated that he didn’t think such a deal would respect the referendum result and cast doubt on whether it would be acceptable to the EU.

Third, although most commentators expect the Prime Minister to bring back her Brexit deal for a third meaningful vote early next week, the Speaker has suggested he might rule that the Government could not do this, due to a convention which states that the House of Commons should not be required to vote on the same issue repeatedly. Gove was quick to argue that last night’s meaningful vote was different to the first due to the changes that Theresa May secured, but this argument will not necessarily find favour with the Speaker.

Today MPs face another decision. The Prime Minister’s motion is effectively laying down a challenge to Parliament: back my Brexit deal or take control of the Brexit process. The underlying message to MPs is: if you choose the latter, you will have to explain this and the inevitable delay to voters.