After much anticipation, the House of Commons declined to approve the Prime Minister’s exit deal on Tuesday evening. This Insight explains what happened procedurally in the Commons and sets out what we expect will happen next in the “Brexit timeline”.

Selection of amendments

When the House rose in the early hours of Tuesday morning, 13 amendments had been tabled (alongside a further amendment to an amendment). The fact that those amendments were all listed on the Order Paper for Tuesday did not mean that MPs would necessarily have the chance to vote on them.

The Speaker of the House of Commons has the power of “selection” of amendments, which means he can decide which of those tabled amendments will be debated. The original Business of the House Order of 4 December said that the Speaker could select “up to” six amendments to the EU withdrawal motion, but this limit was lifted by the supplementary Business of the House Order approved on 9 January.

In the event, the Speaker only selected four of the amendments.

MPs who spoke in meaningful vote debate

Which amendments were selected?

The first selected amendment was in the name of Jeremy Corbyn (amendment (a)). It would have rejected the deal, set out some specific reasons for doing so, and disapproved of a no-deal outcome.

The second to be selected was in the name of Ian Blackford (amendment (k)). It would also have rejected the deal, set out the views of the Scottish and Welsh devolved legislatures, observed the legal implications of “revoking” Article 50 and called for an “extension” to Article 50 to avoid a no-deal outcome.

The third amendment (amendment (b)) was tabled by backbench Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh. Unlike the previous two amendments, it would not have explicitly rejected the Prime Minister’s deal.

 Instead, it made a series of observations about the interaction between the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and the Withdrawal Agreement, and called on the Government to give “assurances” that the UK would “terminate” the Withdrawal Agreement if it became clear that the Northern Ireland backstop was going to become a permanent arrangement.

The fourth amendment (amendment (f)) – was tabled by another backbench Conservative MP, John Baron. It made the approval of the Prime Minister’s deal conditional upon changes to the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement text to enable the UK to leave the backstop unilaterally.

Why weren’t all four amendments voted on?

Even if the Speaker “selects” amendments, this does not mean those questions automatically get put to a vote. For that to happen, the MP tabling the amendment must formally “move” the amendment.

When the Speaker asked Jeremy Corbyn, Ian Blackford and Sir Edward Leigh whether they intended to “move” their amendments, they all indicated that they would not be moving them. During the course of the debate, neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Ian Blackford explained why they did not intend to move their amendments.

Sir Edward Leigh explained that he was not moving his amendment “in view of the positive response from the Prime Minister.” In her closing remarks before the vote, the Prime Minister explained that the Government could not accept the amendment. The reason given for this was that the Government takes a contrary opinion as to the interpretation of the Vienna Convention. However, she committed to “look at creative solutions” to address his concerns of substance on the backstop.

This meant that only John Baron’s amendment was put to a vote. It was defeated by 600 to 24 .

how many hours of debate went into the meaningful vote?

The vote on the original motion, unamended

Having rejected the Baron amendment, the House proceeded to vote on the “main question”: i.e. the original motion, which had not been amended. The House voted against the motion by 432 votes to 202.

This constitutes a “decision not to approve the resolution” which would otherwise have approved the deal for the purposes of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018. The Government now has 21 days to:

“make a statement setting out how Her Majesty’s Government proposes to proceed in relation to negotiations for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union.”

The Business of the House Order of 9 January also states that the Government must “table a motion” under section 13 within three sitting days of any decision not to approve. The Prime Minister explained immediately after the vote that the Government would both make a statement and table a motion on or before Monday 21 January, bringing forward the statutory timetable. This will then mean that a debate on next steps has to take place no later than 30 January (i.e. within 7 sitting days).

What happens next?

It is difficult to say what will happen in the coming days and weeks. Although the “no confidence” procedure under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is legally separate from the Brexit process, the latter may in practice be affected by the former. The Leader of the Opposition has tabled a statutory “vote of no confidence” in the Government, on which the House will vote on Wednesday evening (January 16).

The outcome of that no confidence vote is likely to influence, both in political and practical terms, what the Government sets out in its statement on Monday 21 January and what the response of opposition and backbench MPs will be to any contingency plan offered by it.

We already have some indication of where certain backbench MPs wish to take the process in the coming weeks. Yesterday, Nick Boles presented a Bill before the House in connection with EU withdrawal, while today Dominic Grieve is expected to present two Bills in connection with provision for an EU referendum. Since these are not Government Bills, there are limited opportunities for MPs to debate and vote on them. The House’s own Standing Orders, which give priority to Government business, are therefore likely to be the subject of close scrutiny by those seeking to influence the Government’s next steps.  

Further reading:

Confidence motions, The House of Commons Library.

No confidence motions and early general elections, The House of Commons Library.

The backstop explained, The House of Commons Library.

EU assurances to the UK on Brexit, The House of Commons Library.

Graeme Cowie is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in Brexit.

Image: UK Parliament @Jess__Taylor__ /Mark Duffy

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