Brexit amendment time again: what to look out for tonight

Brexit amendment time again: what to look out for tonight

Parliament voted to leave the EU on 29th March 2019 – in 59 days’ time – and did so by 494 votes to 122. Parliament has also voted against approving the Prime Minister’s draft Withdrawal Agreement by a majority of 230 votes.

That may sound like the end of the matter, but you would be wrong. Today sees the next instalment of the Commons’ procedures under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act (EWA).

Under Section 13 of the EWA, the Government, in the event of the Commons voting down the deal – or it reaching the 21st January with no deal – was obliged to bring forward a statement and a motion to consider it. The statement was on 21st January and the motion to satisfy the two stipulations will be debated today.

The motion reads:

“That this House, in accordance with the provisions of section 13(6)(a) and 13(11)(b)(i) and 13(13)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, has considered the Written Statement titled “Statement under Section 13(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018” and made on 21 January 2019, and the Written Statement titled “Statement under Section 13(11)(a) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018” and made on 24 January.”

So far, so uncontroversial. Not every MP would agree to everything in the statement but all they are being asked to do is agree they have ‘considered’ it.

However, due to a previous rebellion by pro-Remain MPs on Standing Orders (SO24B), the motion is now amendable and it has attracted a plethora of amendments.

Firstly, there is the official Opposition’s amendment in the name of Jeremy Corbyn (Amdt a) that requests parliamentary time to consider renegotiation or a second referendum. This of itself would not be legally binding (Acts, not motions, are law) and is unlikely to pass.

In addition to the official Opposition amendments, there are a number of other amendments from opposition parties that have no support from Conservative or DUP MPs and so will not pass. These predictably include Lib Dem referendum amendments (Amdt ai), Labour MP Hilary Benn’s idea for ‘indicative votes’ (Amdt f) but also a bizarre idea by Labour’s Stella Creasy to call for a ‘Citizens Assembly’ of 250 people chosen by House of Commons Officials to take over the role of Parliament (Amdt h).  None of these will pass or have legal force even if they did. And, importantly, the fate of the Government motion itself is of little consequence – all ministers had to do was arrange for it, not to pass it.

So far, so boring. However, there are some amendments that are of more interest. These are ones that have the support of some Conservative MPs. In a minority Parliament these are the ones to watch.

Runners and riders – the ones to watch:

1. The Cooper amendment / Bill (Amdt b)

Labour MP Yvette Cooper, supported by 10 Remain-supporting Conservative MPs along with Labour backbench MPs, has devised an amendment that stretches the bounds of UK constitutional practice with the aim of extending the UK’s stay in the EU and keep open the option of a second referendum.

This is done by using the amendment to change Standing Orders (SO 14 on the primacy of Government business) to make way for the European Union (Withdrawal) (No 3) Bill – The Cooper Bill’.

The Cooper Bill “directs the Prime Minister to seek an extension of the period of two years specified in Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union to a period ending on 31 December 2019.”

So in essence, the Cooper amendment and Bill seek to allow a small group of MPs to take control of the parliamentary timetable and then legislate for the Prime Minister to negotiate by Statute. If passed, this would be a constitutional revolution, potentially creating chaos for decades to come. Fortunately, the official Opposition are capable of seeing what this convention would do to a future Labour Government, do not want the second referendum that it would enable and are thus unlikely to back it.

2. The Grieve amendment (Amdt g)

No Brexit parliamentary occasion would be complete without an amendment from Conservative Remainer rebel Dominic Grieve. He will not disappoint today. With the support of 12 Conservatives and Labour MPs, he is seeking to force the Commons to produce six extra days dominated by amendable motions. More amendable motions means more opportunities for Grieve amendments and Grieve has plans for what he might use them for – he has a Second Referendum Bill down in his own name.

Will Dominic Grieve and his fellow rebels get the second referendum they want? Highly unlikely, without official Labour support and with the Conservative payroll vote against it, this amendment has little chance of adding a notch to the Grieve amendment tally.

3. The Spelman amendment (Amdt i)

Caroline Spelman MP has gained considerable Labour support for her amendment that ‘rejects’ no deal. Now it’s possible to argue whether it’s logically possible to vote to force the EU to agree a deal when the Commons has voted down the Prime Minister’s deal. Logic is not a bar to amendments, however, and it may gain support from the ‘no no deal’ crowd. However, it is legally meaningless as it’s not binding. The Government will never have to work through its faulty logic.

4. The Sir Graham Brady amendment (Amdt n)

Last but not least the Conservative Chairman of the 1922 Committee has an amendment down which the Prime Minister indicated to a meeting of Tory MPs on Monday that she is minded to support.

This amendment would add:

“and requires the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border; supports leaving the European Union with a deal and would therefore support the Withdrawal Agreement subject to this change”

This is interesting yet ambiguous wording. What does it mean? Does it require the Prime Minister go to the EU27 and demand the removal of the backstop? Does it commit the signatories to support all of the Withdrawal Agreement except the backstop? What of the ‘future framework’? Does ‘requires’ just repeat the aspiration to replace the backstop already in the Agreement (over which the EU has a veto) or go further? Will it be legally binding? Who will go and negotiate, and will MPs get a meaningful vote on the new agreement? Does it even matter what happens either way MPs vote? Many questions – watch out for the answers!


For the avid Brexit watcher here are some things to watch out for.

This morning’s new Order Paper shows that Andrew Murrison has withdrawn his amendment on the backstop and signed the Brady amendment instead (which John Baron had also indicated he would do, although he seems not to have done so). It was possible there could have been a new amendment from the Government: might the Prime Minister have decided to take a lead and put one down in her own name committing her to remove the backstop instead of seeking to rely on sending messages via backbench amendments? Not so, in the event.

Next up is the running order. The Speaker’s selection. This will set out which ones will be voted on. He is not entirely predictable when it comes to Brexit but here is a go: A) Cooper, B) Spelman and C) Brady with possibly Corbyn’s offering for form’s sake.

If any of these amendments passes there is the consideration as to whether the next amendments would be contradictory and thus fall or be allowable. For instance, does it make sense to pass Brady calling for a renegotiation and Spelman ruling out no deal? Combinations of Cooper and Grieve or Cooper and Brady also make little sense. We will see what happens…