The latest vote in the House of Commons on the EU Withdrawal Bill falls firmly into the category “important, but confusing”. So how best to make sense of it all?
A group of Tory rebels, opposed to a hard Brexit, has backed down in a dispute with the prime minister, Theresa May. The group had threatened to support several key amendments to the Bill, making life very difficult for the government.
In essence, the argument was about who should control the process of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, even if it wasn’t always couched in such stark terms.
On one side, the government followed a consistent path. It maintained that the decision to leave was taken with the 2016 referendum and that it is the government’s job to deliver on that decision – not anyone else’s. That means any attempt to impose conditions on the government’s work runs against that basic referendum decision.
While the initial proposition of the government’s take holds a lot of weight, the extrapolation to saying that only it can know and enact the specific form of leaving is much more problematic. That has, in turn, given rise to the other view.
This is the view that parliament, as the repository of ultimate political authority in the UK, should have a role in helping to direct the government should it (the government) be unable to conclude a deal on the terms of withdrawal by the turn of the year.
Even though this suggestion is a long way short of taking power from the government, the latter has felt that it was the thin end to a wedge.
By making it possible for parliament to instruct the government to return to the negotiating table, it would incentivise the EU to drive a harder bargain now. European leaders could be more confident that if a deal were initially rejected by British government negotiators, then parliament would step in to force the issue.
And an even more drastic scenario would be parliament opening up the possibility of a second referendum on membership, or an extension of the Article 50 process. Either could see the UK remain a member of the European Union for the foreseeable future.
So the government won?
Those concerns have been enough for whips to engage in some very drastic measures to try and forestall a rebellion on the Tory backbenches. Not only has there been a suspension on the usual rules on voting by ill MPs, but also some heavy-handed appeals to party unity and to backing the negotiations.
However, the central piece was a written ministerial statement, produced by the government on the morning of June 20. The gist of the statement is that while the amended Withdrawal Bill will only allow parliament to “note” the outcome of the government’s negotiations with the EU, it will be for the speaker of the House to decide whether that “noting” will also come with the power to amend.
Put differently, if the speaker so decides, then parliament will indeed have the power to insert language directing the government in whatever way it wishes.
So the rebels won?
Taken at face value – and as chief rebel, Dominic Grieve, noted – this ensures that parliament will have a voice, as well as a vote, on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.
The problem comes in the standing orders of the House of Commons, which state that when a matter is expressed “in neutral terms” (the language now accepted in the Withdrawal Bill), no amendments are possible, regardless of the speaker’s opinion.
Even the provision in the ministerial statement for debating time is also questionable, since the government controls the agenda of the house, so that time might be insufficient and not necessarily lead to any binding vote.
So we don’t know who won?
Seen in the round, the government appears to have come out somewhat ahead from this. It averted a Commons defeat and kept more margin for doing what it wishes in the Article 50 process.
At the same time, this has come with a significant price.
Most narrowly, the difficulty in getting to this outcome has resulted in Number 10’s credibility and reliability being calling into question by all factions of the Conservative party: the promises made to calm this rebellion look rather threadbare. For a Cabinet still to face many other significant parliamentary votes, even before that on the deal itself, this is a worry.
Moreover, the failure to win back the support of all the Tory rebels lays the groundwork for making those later votes more difficult. The bonds of trust look to be weakening, rather than strengthening.
Ultimately, this is a bullet dodged, rather than a dispute settled. Expect many more contests over parliamentary procedure to come in the months running up to March 2019.