Tonight’s “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal – what to look out for

Tonight’s “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal – what to look out for

MPs will vote today on whether (or not) to “approve” the Prime Minister’s draft Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.

The starting point is a Government motion that fulfils the legal requirement set out in Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act for Commons approval. The Government motion therefore states “That this House approves…”

If passed the Withdrawal Agreement will have passed the first of the stipulations set out in Section 13 (the other major one being the passing implementing legislation).

The Government’s motion has, however, been subject to a welter of amendments on today’s Order Paper, some of which may be voted on. These range from those that would still approve the agreement (Rt Hon Sir Edward Leigh’s (b) on the Vienna Convention and Sir Hugo Swire’s (o) on domestic provisions); give heavily qualified approval (John Baron’s (f) requiring a termination clause to the backstop); to those that would not approve it at all including the official Opposition’s amendment (a).

Originally, Labour MP Hilary Benn had tabled an amendment (i) which proposed the logical absurdity – a rejection both of the draft Agreement and of ‘no deal’, without saying how the EU can be forced to agree or what they are to be asked to agree (hint – it’s Remain). Its rejection of ‘no deal’ would not have been statute or legally binding and – if passed with the backing of Labour MPs and a couple of dozen Tory rebeals – would have left commentators concluding that the Commons had rejected this deal, and ‘no deal’, but not expressed any support for any other deal. However, if it had been passed – and if so, most likely only by a small majority – it would have robbed the Commons of the chance of a straight vote on the Government’s deal, which is thought more likely to be defeated by a bigger majority.

As such, Benn has this morning withdrawn his amendment. (Had he not done so, the irony of the Benn amendment being passed with the aid of Remain-backing Conservatives is that pro-Brexit Conservative MPs would have succeeded in getting through the entire process of Brexit, defeating the Withdrawal Agreement, without rebelling once! Which is as it should be, given they have held to the Conservative manifesto throughout.)

The original Programme motion allowed for up to six amendments to be selected by the Speaker for a vote – adding a vote on an amended motion there could be 7 votes culminating at around 8.30pm. This selection of votes may not be clear until the end of the debates. The selection is not straightforward. One amendment (the Lib Dem’ second referendum amendment) is dependent on Labour’s amendment passing and yet others conflict with each other. It would not make sense for some to be voted on if others are passed first – they would fall. Amendments are taken before a vote on the main motion – the order is therefore important.

Despite the complexity, here are a couple of the most likely scenarios:

Scenario 1: The Government’s motion is not amended and is defeated by a majority of over 100

In this scenario the official Labour amendment is dispatched early on, the minor amendments are withdrawn or defeated, and Labour decide to put their full firepower into a straight defeat of the Withdrawal Agreement.

In this scenario the bulk of 256 Labour MPs, those from the minor parties and the 10 DUP MPs would form a winning coalition with, say, around 60 Conservatives. The deal would be defeated by around 375 to 267.

This would be a clear defeat for the Government, leading to a potential Opposition confidence motion (that would be won by the Government). It would also surely stop any further attempts to revive the Withdrawal Agreement without major surgery.

Scenario 2: The Government’s motion is not amended and is defeated by a majority of under 100

In this scenario, the Government manage to reduce their margin of defeat via a mixture of Labour and Lib Dem abstentions (new constituency hospitals, enterprise parks and knighthoods anyone?) and a reduction of the Conservative pro-Brexit block by assurances to its irreducible core.

In this scenario, as with the other, the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement has failed to be approved. This triggers, under the Act, a Government Statement within 21 days and a motion – in addition to the motion required within 3 sitting days added by Dominic Grieve’s last rebellion. If the margin is reduced, would the Government conclude the EU would not renegotiate and so attempt a re-run?

Whatever the outcome, the same Parliament that voted to leave on 29th March would have voted against the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement. If the Commons acts decisively and defeats what is very obviously a bad deal by a healthy margin, then a period of frantic renegotiation will no doubt ensue, hopefully leading to a better outcome. If not, the Prime Minister was correct to say ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ – unfortunately the EU was only able to offer a bad one. Either way, it’s time for MPs to put the ball in the EU’s court by rejecting the deal.