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Brexit: what just happened? And what happens next? | Politics

Yet another potential crunch day for Brexit in the Commons has proved less decisive than it might have been. So what do we know?

What has happened?

In brief, the government has been barred from putting its Brexit deal before MPs for approval for a second time in three days. The Speaker, John Bercow, told the chamber that under House of Commons rules it would be “repetitive and disorderly” to put the same issue before the chamber a second time.

Is he right?

While some of Bercow’s recent rulings have caused controversy, this seems relatively straightforward. Under a 17th-century convention laid out in Erskine May, the official handbook of parliamentary procedure: “A motion or an amendment which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided during a session may not be brought forward again during that same session.”

Bercow ruled that in seeking approval for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal on Saturday and, after being frustrated by an amendment, on Monday, both the substance and the circumstances of the issues were fundamentally the same.

Do Brexiters agree?

No. In a series of points of order following Bercow’s statement, pro-Brexit Conservatives lined up to argue that circumstances had changed, in that since the Saturday vote Johnson had written to the EU to request a departure extension. Bercow, however, noted that this was simply the prime minister abiding by a law obliging him to do this if his deal had not been approved by that date, and so was only routine.

Was the motion actually passed on Saturday?

Yes – even though there was no vote. The government convened the Saturday sitting in the hope of winning a straight yes/no vote on Johnson’s deal. However, the motion approving the deal could be amended, and MPs first voted for an amendment tabled by the Conservative Oliver Letwin, which dictated that approval should be withheld until the associated Brexit legislation laying out the terms of departure was also presented and passed.

Ministers objected to this amendment, not least as it meant the 31 October Brexit deadline was unlikely to be met. Thus, when it was passed, the government and opposition decided together to not hold a vote on the now-amended motion. But this did not mean the issue was not decided – the motion was deemed to have passed without a vote, and thus decided by MPs. This was why Bercow objected to a second go.

What happens next?

The focus now moves to the withdrawal agreement bill, or WAB, which lays out the legal basis for the UK’s withdrawal under treaty. This was set to receive the formality of a first reading later on Monday, with the first vote, on the second reading, taking place on Tuesday.

The second reading will be a good test of support, but even assuming it passes, the government’s difficulties could begin in the next stage of the WAB, when MPs can table amendments. Among amendments expected are ones seeking a customs union with the EU for the whole UK and one making approval of the Brexit deal conditional on a second referendum.

If any of these amendments are passed, it will not only require a departure extension but will effectively wreck the bill for the government. The most likely outcome then would be for Johnson to seek an election. However, if all the amendments fail then MPs will be worked flat-out to try and pass the necessary legislation for Johnson’s deal before 31 October.

How annoyed will Johnson be?

It depends. On the one hand, he will not be happy that his much-touted “super Saturday” sitting of parliament, an attempt to raise the stakes and push MPs into backing his deal, was sidetracked by the Letwin amendment, especially when he might have secured the necessary votes. The inability to try again with a vote on the deal also leads the process into the murky waters of an amendable bill.

But the tactics of MPs, and the optics of Bercow blocking a second vote – however in line with procedure – will help feed into Johnson’s preferred “people v parliament” election narrative, in which he would fight as a prime minister who delivered a deal but was thwarted by those seeking to delay or obstruct Brexit.

With this narrative amplified by sympathetic newspapers armed with attack lines dictated by “No 10 sources”, it could end up with Johnson returned to power with a workable majority, and the ability to shape Brexit as he sees fit. But elections can be fickle things. Just ask Theresa May.


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