UK Parliament wins right to avert No Deal on Brexit

By on 27/02/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Labour backbencher Yvette Cooper, whose amendment has given MPs a route to delaying Brexit (Image courtesy: Chatham House).

The UK’s House of Commons agreed on Wednesday night that if Parliament rejects both PM Theresa May’s planned Brexit deal and the prospect of a ‘No Deal’ exit, MPs will be given a vote on whether to ask for Brexit to be delayed.

The agreement came in the form of overwhelming support for an amendment brought by backbench Labour MP Yvette Cooper, which the government eventually backed.

Prime minister Theresa May gave way on the principle of allowing a Commons vote on delaying Brexit earlier this week, after dozens of ministers threatened to resign in order to back a previous version of Cooper’s amendment, under which the Commons would have taken full control of the parliamentary timetable for aspects of Brexit policy. Cooper subsequently softened her amendment to capture the PM’s concession whilst leaving May in charge of process.

Lingering resistance

Despite the government’s support for Cooper, 20 hardline Brexiteers voted against the amendment – which, as she said, “simply notes & pins down what the PM said yesterday about holding votes in event of UK facing No Deal.”

“The Government said they accept it. But some of ERG have decided to vote against!! How desperate are they to get No Deal?” she tweeted as the vote was taking place.

Cooper’s amendment was one of several being voted on during the evening, including a Labour proposal to enter into a customs union with the EU – which was defeated by 83 votes. In accordance with Labour Party policy – established in a members’ vote at last autumn’s party conference – its leader Jeremy Corbyn said he would “back a public vote in order to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit or a disastrous No Deal outcome.”

However, Corbyn added that he would “also continue to push for the other available options,” including a different exit deal and a general election. The Labour leadership has shifted towards supporting a second referendum this week, following a series of defections from both main parties, but key Corbyn advisers and some MPs are firmly opposed.

TIG tock, time’s running short

Eight Labour and three Conservative MPs left their parties earlier this month, citing their leaders’ handling of Brexit as a main reason for their departure. Anti-semitism within Labour was also a key factor, most recently in the shape of harassment and abuse of Jewish MP Luciana Berger – one of the eight.

The 11 formed the Independent Group on 18 February, changing the parliamentary arithmetic and quickly attracting widespread support in national polls – with some showing the group at 18%.

A further amendment, securing rights for EU citizens in the UK even in the event of a No Deal exit, was accepted by the government earlier in the day. Conservative MP Alberto Costa, who tabled the motion, had to quit his post as parliamentary private secretary to Scotland secretary David Mundell in order to lay a private amendment.

However, the EU has still not accepted the principle that UK citizens in the EU should have the same protections. Costa’s amendment – which was supported unanimously in the Commons – promises the rights agreed in May’s Withdrawal Agreement, but to date the EU has stuck to its line that the deal must be agreed in full or not at all.

What next?

The first meaningful vote on May’s Brexit deal was roundly defeated when it was held on 15 January. May then said she would go back and renegotiate with the EU, giving MPs another chance to vote on her withdrawal agreement. This was originally set for 27 February but has now been delayed to 12 March. 

Even if MPs vote in favour of May’s deal next month, it is likely that a short extension of the 29 March exit date will be required in order to pass crucial legislation. However, if her deal is defeated again there is likely to be two further votes on the following days. 

The first, on the 13 March, will give MPs the opportunity to vote on whether or not they support a No Deal Brexit. If that doesn’t pass, on 14 March they’ll vote on whether to seek an extension to Article 50, delaying the exit date.

Plots within plots

The PM would then have to ask the EU for an extension. She has ruled out extending the date any longer than three months – but it is not clear what she’d do with the time, and the EU may only be willing to grant an extension if it creates the potential for a decisive outcome. This would be likely to require a referendum, which cannot be conducted within three months.

Some commentators fear that May intends to seek a short extension whilst refusing to participate in the European Parliament elections – in which case, the UK could not remain a member after 1 July. Then MPs would face a straight choice between May’s Withdrawal Agreement and No Deal, with no option of a referendum.

Previous Global Government Forum features explain how the UK’s politics got to this point, and how the subsequent negotiations would pan out if May’s deal is approved. We have also examined the incentives which are encouraging many key groups to run down the clock on agreeing the deal – and thus to risk a No Deal outcome.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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