The Brexit Secretary has announced that MPs will have a vote on Britain's deal with the EU. He will do his best to make this vote meaningless—but the truth is that a "no" vote would trigger the collapse of the governmentby Ian Dunt / November 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Yesterday, David Davis announced what will probably be the most significant bill in Britain’s post-war history. MPs are going to be given a vote, in primary legislation, on the deal he secures with the European Union.
This could prove a key moment in the Brexit debate. Ministers will do all they can to make this vote meaningless, but it could anyway blow up from underneath them.
Davis can already see the dangers. As soon as he announced the promise, he tried to suffocate it with his usual brand of procedural nihilism. This started with the extraordinary assertion that the Commons might only be able to vote on the bill after we’d left the EU. It is a lunatic proposition, of course, but an unsurprising one for anyone who has been following Brexit closely. This process has been defined by empty promises throughout.
There are other caveats. The bill could be amended, like any primary legislation, but if you did that it would necessarily mean the treaty the government had agreed with Europe would have changed. This would promptly stop the ratification process in Europe and probably lead to no-deal. So while the option is there on paper, it would likely be impossible in practice.
Davis also insisted that it was his deal or no-deal. A no vote would mean Britain falling out the EU with no arrangements in place: the cliff edge. This, despite what ministers say, means the vote is not really meaningful. Between the deal and the abyss, everyone takes the deal.
So it’s natural that people have assumed this is just more Brexit trickery from Davis—the illusion of scrutiny, with nothing concrete to provide it. And that’s certainly what he intended.
But Davis cannot control the historical currents in which he finds himself and there is more opportunity for mischief here than he will be comfortable with. The reality is that this vote is only meaningless if it held on, or after, Brexit day. But if it is held in good time before Brexit day, the dynamic changes completely.
Let’s say the vote happens in January 2019, three months ahead of Brexit day. This is a realistic timetable, given talks will have ended in Autumn 2018. Now let’s say the government loses. What happens then?
The government’s position is that Britain would have to leave without a deal. But what this government happens to think would no longer be pertinent. Theresa May’s administration has jettisoned all other areas of policy and focused exclusively on delivering Brexit. If its final deal is rejected by parliament it constitutes a de-facto vote of no confidence in the government. It is highly likely that the government would collapse.
At this stage, a delegation of MPs or a new government—hastily scrambled together by Labour and anyone willing to work with it—could petition the EU for a time extension to Article 50 and the chance to reopen negotiations.
This is a long shot. Extending Article 50 requires universal agreement from the remaining 27 member states. They are unlikely to welcome the notion of more negotiation time, having just wasted two years doing precisely that to no avail. And even if the EU did agree, the British parliament might not give consent for a time extension.
It’s also hard to imagine a scenario where we even get to this stage. Tory MPs would know that by voting against the deal they were in effect sabotaging their own government. Conservatives nearly always do their duty to party when the time comes, and that goes double in a period when they consider the leader of the opposition an existential threat to the country. And even if they did vote against it, the government is currently trying to make that rebellion meaningless by stitching a specific Brexit date into the repeal bill.
All of that is true. The game has been rigged to prevent MPs having a meaningful say. But behind all of these caveats, the truth is that a “no” vote would trigger the collapse of the government, so the government would have little power to define what happens after it.
If you squint at the future just right and tilt your head to the side, it is just about possible to imagine a series of events which fundamentally change what is happening.