The government’s decision to cave into backbench pressure and seek statutory approval for whatever divorce deal it strikes with Brussels has rekindled fears about the future of Brexit itself, and closer examination of the fine print raises more questions than answers about the true scale of its climbdown.
What are MPs actually getting to vote on?
Assuming there is a withdrawal deal struck with the EU over the next year – itself a far from certain outcome given current deadlock in Brussels – then Britain’s parliament will be asked to pass legislation putting it all into UK law. Not only will this mean a binding vote by a majority of MPs, but it also provides an opportunity to table amendments, which could theoretically even force some element of renegotiation. The Brexit secretary, David Davis, says that failure to pass the bill (or passing any overly ambitious amendments) will simply mean that Britain crashes out without an exit deal at all. Nonetheless it introduces yet more doubt about the government’s ability to maintain balance as it tip-toes across the Brexit tightrope.
Weren’t they already getting a vote on this?
The government has always argued that the House of Commons would have some say over the terms of its deal with Brussels. Previously though, it was far from clear that this proposed vote would have any bite, or would even be held before Britain finally leaves the EU. Tory backbencher Dominic Grieve has led what looks to have been a successful campaign to force a “meaningful vote” by requiring the government to put its deal onto the statute books with primary legislation.
Don’t we have enough votes in parliament already?
This is far from being the only Brexit law that needs to pass through the Commons. In total, there are now 10 pieces of primary legislation that require approval. These range from the giant EU withdrawal bill (once known as the “great repeal bill”) which begins its committee stage on Tuesday, through to smaller but no less important enabling legislation dealing with knock-on issues like trade, customs and immigration. Tripping up over any one of these could prove fatal for the government. It has already had to back down over a slew of procedural questions.
Why are they doing this then?
Amid pressure from all sides, Theresa May had little choice but to bend. Grieve’s amendment was supported not only by Labour but a growing number of moderate Tories. Negotiations in Brussels have also made it necessary because Davis has had to reassure nervous EU governments that future immigration agreements will be binding under UK law. In order to give what is called “direct effect” to its promises on citizens’ rights, the government needed to pass primary legislation rather than simply change policy.
Will this allow parliament or the country to change its mind about Brexit?
Not directly. If there is no deal in Brussels, or MPs don’t like the deal they get offered, then the only formal alternative remains for Britain to leave the EU chaotically, without a divorce agreement or a trade treaty. For this reason, many MPs would still prefer the opportunity to also vote on the merits of the no-deal option too. Defeat on this would almost certainly trigger a general election or perhaps even a second referendum on whether to stay in, which is very much not in the government’s current planning. Nonetheless, there is now for the first time an opportunity for parliament to force a major rethink of Brexit policy as we approach the point of no return on 29 March 2019.