The European Commission would be the only winners from a ‘meaningful vote’

The European Commission would be the only winners from a ‘meaningful vote’

The stage is set for a momentous Parliamentary showdown over the EU Withdrawal Bill, with the Commons set to debate the 15 amendments added to the Bill by the House of Lords (see BrexitCentral’s explainer for details of what and when).

While the debate will go on for two full days, the vote that has the biggest potential to fatally undermine the Brexit negotiations is actually one that will be held half-way through Tuesday’s debate – Amendment 19 on the so-called ‘meaningful vote’.

This amendment, proposed by Viscount Hailsham – the notorious former MP who was accused of claiming taxpayer-funded expenses for cleaning his moat on his Lincolnshire estate – has been put forward under the guise of being a ‘meaningful vote’, but in practice it has the potential to completely derail the UK’s negotiations with the EU.

Unlike Dominic Grieve’s original amendment which succeeded in the Commons and gave both houses of Parliament a meaningful vote on the deal, the Hailsham amendment would go much further by giving the Lords an indefinite veto over any deal negotiated by Theresa May with the European Union. This would leave the UK completely hamstrung in the negotiations as it would give the EU no incentive to offer the UK anything other than the worst possible deal. The European Commission would be able to sit back and hold out for complete capitulation from the UK as they could rely on the heavily pro-EU House of Lords to reject any deal until the EU got the deal it wanted.

The basic truth that is all too frequently forgotten is that, even if the short-term consequences might be felt more acutely in the UK, an acrimonious no deal is an outcome the EU desperately wants to avoid too. While very few people on either side actively want no deal, the fact that it still exists at least as a remote possibility means that the EU is forced to show at least a modicum of restraint in the concessions it demands from the UK.

The ‘meaningful vote’ amendment would change everything and give Michel Barnier and the Commission a free pass to walk all over Britain, knowing that there would be no consequences whatsoever. Far from making the process more ‘meaningful’, all it would do is make every British proposal in the negotiations meaningless.

Moreover, it would be constitutionally unprecedented for Parliament to force the Government into a straitjacket in an international negotiation in this way. Throughout British history, the ability to negotiate on the international plane has lain with the executive – never before has Parliament sought to turn the UK’s constitutional order upside down by constraining the Government in such a way.

The claims of some Remainers that this must be done to in order to uphold the country’s democratic system are confused almost to the point of Orwellian doublethink. In order to preserve the constitutional order of the UK, we must turn it on its head. In order to defend democracy, we must undermine and ultimately undo the single biggest vote in British electoral history.

Nor has the Government failed to compromise over the issue. The Government has tabled an amendment in lieu of the Hailsham amendment, which enshrines the Commons’ meaningful vote in the Bill, while removing the Lords’ ability to veto the deal indefinitely, respecting the primacy of the elected chamber.

Prospective Tory rebels had been expected to accept the Government’s compromise, although the picture has been further complicated by the tabling of a last-minute amendment to the government’s amendment by Dominic Grieve overnight, and the unexpected resignation of junior minister Philip Lee from the Government this morning, who has indicated that he wishes to overturn Brexit outright by supporting a second referendum.

The Grieve counter-amendment prescribes different courses of action depending on whether or not a deal has been agreed by the end of November of the middle of February. However, it still comes with almost all the same flaws as the original Hailsham amendment as it would create a hard threshold of 15 February 2019 after which the EU would be still able to force the worst possible deal on the UK.

Meanwhile, Tom Brake and the Liberal Democrats have also tabled a separate amendment to the original Lords amendment, which tries to leave the door open to the possibility of the Commons forcing a second referendum when it votes on the deal, although it is not clear that it would actually have any legal effect in practice.

While the amendment has sporadic support from a handful of committed Labour Remainers including Owen Smith, there is very limited support for a second referendum overall and it has zero chance of succeeding. Indeed, there were groans all around the Commons chamber the last time Tom Brake forced a second referendum amendment to a vote, as it went on to secure only 23 votes against 319, with a Government majority of 296.

Nonetheless, the damage that would be done to the UK’s prospects in the negotiations by the meaningful vote amendment cannot be understated. It is no secret that the UK is already on the back foot, with the European Commission having largely got its own way in the negotiations so far. But this amendment would be all of Barnier’s Christmas and Birthday presents come at once, personally gift-wrapped by MPs and with a deluxe ribbon on the top saying “do your worst”.

All Leavers and Remainers who respect the referendum result must urgently consider the bigger picture and unite to reject the meaningful vote amendment today, or else hand the European Commission a blank cheque to demand total submission from their country in nine months time.