Another interesting week. A lot happened but what did it all actually mean. Who won? Who caved? What was settled? We need to look at the final agreed amendments to answer that because the devil is – as ever – in the detail. This is the final statement on the agreed amendments (from the Parliamentary website). 19A and 19P are the key bits.
The first thing to note is that Parliamentary Approval is now specifically in the bill as a new clause and the vote is supposed to come before the European Parliament’s vote – but that’s not guaranteed (to be honest, it can’t be – the UK does not control the European Parliament). The bill now explicitly states:
“The withdrawal agreement may be ratified only if – … the negotiated withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship have been approved by a resolution of the House of Commons on a motion moved by a Minister of the Crown.”
“an Act of Parliament has been passed which contains provision for
the implementation of the withdrawal agreement.”
If the proposed withdrawal agreement and framework for the future relationship is voted down, then the government needs to come back within 28 days and explain what the heck is going to happen next. That was as far as the Government initially proposed in 19A. Then 19P kicks in and says that the House of Commons and House of Lords then must vote on that within 7 sitting days.
It continues and says that if by 21st January, there is no deal (or the government has declared it cannot reach one earlier) the government has 14 days to explain what it is going to do now and the House of Commons and House of Lords must then vote on that.
Now the most important thing to bear in mind here is that before all the campaigns and threats of rebellions, all that we had was some vague talk about a vote at some stage – with David Davis at one point suggesting it could be after we had actually left! Now – as a point of law – there are specific statements, votes, consequences and deadlines.
What they were arguing about
All of the above was actually accepted by the government. The final sticking point was over one bit of wording. The original amendment said the vote would be on “a motion for the House of Commons to approve…” the government statements. The passed one had the vote being on a “a motion in neutral terms, to the effect that the House of Commons has considered the matter of…” the Government’s statements instead. The Government now insists that this means it can ignore the vote (Liam Fox was saying that within hours of the bill passing). The rebels don’t agree and Davies’ final compromise statement says that it’s up to the Speaker to decide. So basically a bit more can-kicking.
However, that statement contains a sting in its tail. Dominic Greive insisted on the final paragraph:
The Government recognises that it is open for Ministers and members of the House of Commons to table motions on and debate matters of concern and that, as is the convention, parliamentary time will be provided for this.
This basically acknowledges that the Commons can debate and pass motions on whatever it wants and in whatever form it wants. In doing this David Davis ensured that the Government has formally accepted (it’s true anyhow but getting them to commit to it is important politically) that Parliament could introduce a motion of its own at that point – one not supported by the Government and not on neutral terms. And since Parliament is supreme, if that motion said – “this isn’t acceptable, go back” and it passed – then Parliament is instructing the government.
So the government claimed it won as it had its “neutral” motion wording in the bill; even though it didn’t want any of 19P – that was Grieve. And the rebels can point out Parliament is supreme and the Government has confirmed that Parliament can introduce whatever motion it wants – making the exact terms of the motion in the bill a little irrelevant. It was a fudge to allow some semblance of party unity; but nothing has been solved. The rebels are still very clear. They will vote down a Hard crash out Brexit.
A Government Defeat
That’s the answer to the question in the title. The Government has conceded a lot. Remember, its opening position is that it didn’t want any formal Parliamentary involvement; and now it has got it. There is a now a structure where the government has to face Parliament and explain its proposals; and they will be voted on.
There is also now a clear deadline – 21st January, after which Parliament starts to take back control. No leaving a vote until after Exit Day. The final wording on what will happen at the end is definitely not as clear cut as lawyers would like -so it’s not a total victory for the rebels and the opposition; but the right of Parliament to be informed and for it to make its own decision on this – and any motion it wants – has been confirmed. So there will be a showdown.
If the rebels and the House of Lords had not stood up to the government, we would have none of this. The Government would have just railroaded us into whatever it wanted and ignored Parliament. For that, we should be grateful to Dominic Grieve and his colleagues. Could it have been stronger? Yes, it could have. Would all of the above have existed without them? No.
They have been under immense pressure – including death threats – and they really don’t want to hurt the government (they certainly don’t want to bring it down) and so it’s a fine line they’ve been treading. But we have something we wouldn’t have had before and it is substantial.
More importantly than that, though, when the rebels accepted the government’s amendments (and its amendments to their amendments) and its statement, they made it very clear that they thought that this gave them a veto over a Hard Brexit. Parliament always has had this of course – but the government has confirmed it (very very indirectly). And the Rebels have made it very clear that a Hard Brexit will not pass the House of Commons because they will vote against it.
I wrote last week that the government wanted control – of the timings and of the final decision with respect to all the negotiations. Well, it doesn’t have those now.
Mrs May wanted all her MPs to toe the line no matter what and she certainly doesn’t have that. Instead she has dozens on one side who will vote down a Hard Brexit and dozens on the other who will vote down a Soft Brexit.
And while losing control, she has showed how desperate and panicked she was – using procedural moves to try and deny a vote on the amendment and tearing up parliamentary conventions to force seriously ill MPs into the Commons. The whole Government is desperate and scared. The very thing it doesn’t have is control.
The next steps are outside of Parliament. The negotiations are going terribly – more on this at a later date – and there is no prospect of this improving. The Labour party has rightly resisted calls to force the Government to adopt one position or another on the future relationship with the EU. Not because it wants to help them; but because it wants them to own this mess.
The Government has said it can get the most perfect cakist deal where we get everything they want – all our cake and eating it. It can’t. So when they come back and show what they have got; politically Labour can then blame them for it all. They need to show that the mess we will be in – and we will be – is the Conservative party’s fault. This might not be edifying; but it’s good politics.
The reality of the negotiations is going to destroy every single one of the Leavers dreams because they are built on fantasies. A good chunk of the electorate will still believe because they are desperate for it to be true; but on such a narrow majority, there are many for whom this will tip them over the edge. They were promised the Earth and they are getting a whopping great big bill instead.
Remember all the Leave assurances that they need us more than we need them? Or that we hold all the cards and that we can win the whole pot in this high stakes poker game? All who understand trade, economics or just negotiations know this was deluded – the EU has a royal flush and the UK’s cards? A pair of twos, Mr Bun the Baker, a Pikachu and the Fool. We can all see that now. (With respect to original quote from Thomas Cogley)
So the job for all of us is to keep up the pressure, keep changing public opinion, win people over one argument and one person at a time. It’s happening and it is having an effect on the political calculations. We just need to keep it up. This week has confirmed a structure for us to voice our feelings through Parliament. We now need to shout.
The Government wanted control, to keep Parliament at bay and to minimise its influence. In that, it has failed and the rebels have triumphed. Perhaps not as emphatically or completely as many would want; but complete victories are rare in the real world where things are messy. At the end of the day, though, it didn’t want to grant any of what it has had to – and we do now have a structure to hold the government to account. For that, the rebels should be praised.
In the midst of this, the Prime Minister even had the arrogance – born of pure panic – to go on television and say that Parliament cannot bind the hands of government. I’m afraid, Mrs May, that is exactly what it can, should and must do. Who has the final say – Parliament or the Government? – was a question we fought a civil war over and had a revolution to establish (She really needs to brush up on her history) and this final bill confirms that.
Parliament will have its say. The Government is bluffing in its threats of no deal anyhow. It still might happen because the Government is as clueless and inept as it is arrogant; but then Parliament can and will assert its authority.
But the one thing that will move Parliament to do that and will influence the calculations of all our politicians is what they see happening out on the streets, in the media and personally – face to face. So march, campaign, and argue. Reality is against Brexit and as more and more people see that, more and more question why we are doing this and start to ask for the right to change their mind.
This week was just the starting gun for a summer of action against the backdrop of failed negotiations and broken promises. And from that, we will then get real choices on our future.
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