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 in June 2019); or rescinding the Article 50 notification altogether (a nuclear option in domestic politics for which the legal basis would be hotly disputed); or calling another referendum (despite reservations that plebiscites only exacerbate, never heal national divisions).
In reality, the “meaningful vote” is not one event but a sequence: the government will invite parliament to approve a motion backing the text of what has been agreed in Brussels. But it also has to make that text law in a Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill. Every debate in that process has the potential to generate amendments and counter-amendments.
There will be legislative blood. Defeat for May on the main substance of the deal would amount to the biggest political crisis for a generation. The prime minister’s raison d’etre in Downing Street would be vaporised. It is hard to imagine her continuing in office. It is also hard to imagine how any replacement, installed by Tory MPs and a ballot of a few tens of thousands of Conservative members, could plausibly claim a mandate to fix the Brexit mess he or she inherited. And there would, at that stage, be only a few months left on the article 50 clock.
“Defeat for May on the substance of the deal would amount to the biggest political crisis for a generation”
For that reason, many MPs believe the eventual meaning of May losing her “meaningful” vote is a general election. The constitutional mechanism by which this might be triggered is uncertain. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act narrows the range of circumstances in which Commons defeats can lead to government dissolutions. It is no longer simply a question of declaring crucial votes to be “matters of confidence.” But, as May herself demonstrated when she called a snap election last year, there are ways to unfix fixed terms. There is a view around the Labour leadership that somewhere in the dense forest of potential Brexit calamities, visible on the near horizon, is a pathway to power for Jeremy Corbyn.
And in that prospect is found the prime minister’s best hope for survival. There are many Tory MPs who dislike Brexit in general and May’s version of it in particular. But few among those rebels are so hostile to their leader that they would be willing to defenestrate her if doing so might hasten a Labour government. There are moderate Labour MPs who feel pretty much the same way about the undesirability of putting their own leader into Downing Street. The Lords amendment to the Withdrawal Bill is designed to remove, or at least substantially reduce the hazard of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal. But that doesn’t eliminate the hazard—as Conservatives see it—of crashing out of western-style liberal market capitalism under a Corbyn government.
So the “meaningful vote” in autumn is shaping up to be a huge, high-stakes, constitutionally opaque game of chicken. On one side is a government, presenting a deal it knows to be suboptimal, having run out of time to get a better one. May’s offer is highly unlikely to contain detail about the long-term trading arrangements. Those will be sketched in a “political declaration” to be fleshed out in the 21-month post-exit transition phase. On the other side are MPs who hate the deal but dread the consequences of wrecking it.
And this game will be conducted in a great fog of ignorance. No-one will know for sure what becomes of Brexit if May is defeated, but no-one will be able to say for sure what Brexit will do to Britain if she succeeds. The vote will be on the terms of withdrawal in 2019 and aspirations to make something better of the future, due for arrival some time around 2021, when the security of EU membership will already have been withdrawn. MPs might win clarity over the meaning of a meaningful vote on Brexit but without knowing what the Brexit they are voting on itself really means.