And MPs will be playing it in a great fog of ignoranceby Rafael Behr / May 2, 2018 / Leave a comment
Few things encapsulate the spirit of Brexit better than uncertainty over the meaning of the “meaningful vote” that parliament will have on the terms of departure from the European Union.
Theresa May has never liked the idea of MPs meddling in the negotiations, still less the idea that they might wield a veto over the outcome. But her preference for total executive control, not unusual in prime ministers, proved unacceptable to the Commons. Last year, ministers were prodded into confirmation that the final deal would be the subject of a vote and, after further prodding, that the vote would be “meaningful.”
Unwilling to rely on verbal assurances, MPs—including, crucially, Tory rebels—codified that assurance with an amendment to the EU withdrawal bill. On Monday, the House of Lords amended that amendment to make the meaningful vote even more meaningful.
So what does it all really mean? The crucial clauses of the Lords amendment are drafted to cover the eventuality where May’s offer to parliament is rejected. It is a scenario that the government does not like to discuss. It must project confidence that the deal will be irresistible either because it is brilliant or because the alternatives are obviously worse. With that calculation in mind, ministers hinted that the default setting, if May’s deal was struck down, would be no deal at all—an outcome feared by the vast majority of MPs as a certain path to ruin.
That interpretation of the withdrawal bill (before the upper chamber tampered with it) looked right. May could have offered an ultimatum: my deal or calamity beyond words. Peers have changed the calculus with clauses that instruct the government to take direction from parliament if certain deadlines for striking a deal and getting it ratified are not met.
The dreaded “no-deal” scenario then becomes a “parliament-takes-the-wheel” scenario. No-one can say what that would involve in practice. It is one thing to change driver in a stationary vehicle, it is quite another thing to put 650 drivers, holding rival roadmaps, in charge of a vehicle that is moving at speed towards the edge of a cliff.
Some remainers imagine that the Commons could use its backstop powers to delay or thwart Brexit: ordering the government to seek an extension of the Article 50 negotiating period (politically and diplomatically very complicated, especially with elections to the European parliament due…