A ‘Plan B’ considered and two instructions given: Where next for Parliament and Brexit?

On Tuesday 29 January, the Commons debated the Prime Minister’s proposals for “next steps” in the Brexit process. This debate took place because the House decided not to approve, a fortnight earlier, a proposed “exit deal” negotiated by the Government and the European Union.

MPs were able to move amendments to Tuesday’s Government motion which said that the House of Commons had “considered” its statements on next steps. This mechanism allowed MPs not simply to express a view about whether they approved or disapproved of the Government’s contingency plan, but also to make more specific proposals about what should happen next. This Insight explains how MPs voted on those amendments, and what the final resolution means for wider negotiations with the EU and Parliament’s role between now and exit day.

What amendments were agreed to?

For the debate on 29 January, the Speaker selected seven of the amendments that had been tabled. However, only two of these amendments were adopted as part of the final resolution.

The Spelman amendment

Caroline Spelman’s amendment, approved by 318 votes to 310, purported to “reject” the possibility of the UK leaving the EU without a ratified withdrawal agreement and agreed framework for the future relationship.

This amendment has no direct legal effect. It stops short, for example, of providing a legislative mechanism by which Article 50 would be “revoked” in the absence of a ratified deal on 29 March 2019. Unlike either Yvette Cooper’s or Rachel Reeves’s amendments, it also did not call for any specific action to be taken on “extension” of Article 50 so as to “avoid” or “postpone” a ‘no-deal’ exit.

The importance of the Spelman amendment concerns how it interacts with the Government’s stated policy. In her statement before the House on 21 January, the Prime Minister  explained that, although there were two ways of “ruling out no deal”, only one was (in her view) an acceptable course of action:

“The right way to rule out no deal is for the House to approve a deal with the European Union, and that is what the Government are seeking to achieve. The only other guaranteed way to avoid a no-deal Brexit is to revoke Article 50, which would mean staying in the EU.”

It is not clear that the Spelman amendment, despite being voted against by the Government, is necessarily incompatible with stated Government policy. After all, the Government wants to leave with something similar to its own deal and prefers that to leaving without one. However, the Spelman amendment does not call for any specific course of action in the absence of a deal, whether the Prime Minister’s deal specifically or a deal generally; it serves simply as an expression of the House’s belief that a no-deal scenario is an undesirable one.

The vote on the Spelman amendment may be indicative of the Government’s prospects of success were it to come back and make a second attempt at securing an approval resolution for its deal.

The Brady amendment

Graham Brady’s amendment, approved by 317 votes to 301, concerned the Northern Ireland backstop. Those voting for the amendment indicated that their support for the Government’s exit deal would be contingent upon “replacing” the backstop with “alternative arrangements.”

This amendment did not specify what those “alternative arrangements” would be. This amendment was not as specific as others that had been tabled and previously debated. It does not, for example, seek to impose a time limit on the backstop, or to establish a unilateral right of withdrawal in given circumstances. This presents potential challenges (beyond how the EU might respond to such a request) because we do not know whether all of those backing this amendment had the same “alternative arrangements” in mind.

The Prime Minister’s response on the backstop

The Prime Minster’s statement following the vote strongly suggests that she will be seeking changes to the Withdrawal Agreement itself. She said:

“We will now take this mandate forward and seek to obtain legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement that deal with concerns on the backstop while guaranteeing no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. My colleagues and I will talk to the EU about how we address the House’s views.”

The response so far from both the EU and the Irish Government has been explicit: no such renegotiation will be contemplated. Irish Deputy Prime Minister, Simon Coveney, said on Twitter following the vote:

“[The] Backstop was agreed by UK/EU as the insurance policy to avoid a hard border in all scenarios. We hope it will never be used, or be replaced quickly by a future relationship agreement. But it is necessary and tonight’s developments at Westminster do nothing to change this.”

Parliament’s role

Now that the “next steps” debate has happened, there is no further statutory role for Parliament in the withdrawal process unless and until the Government brings forward another approval motion for a negotiated exit deal. However, the Prime Minister has committed to a similar debate as that which took place on 29 January, to take place on 14 February in the absence of a deal being brought back:

“We will bring a revised deal back to this House for a second meaningful vote as soon as we possibly can. While we will want the House to support that deal, if it did not, we would—just as before—table an amendable motion for debate the next day. Furthermore, if we have not brought a revised deal back to this House by Wednesday 13 February, we will make a statement and, again, table an amendable motion for debate the next day. So the House will have a further opportunity to revisit this question of leaving without a deal.”

The Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn has also now entered talks with the Prime Minister to discuss where progress might be made to reach a deal which Labour is prepared to support. He said:

“Since we have had this debate and the House has emphatically voted to reject the no-deal option that the Prime Minister was supporting, may I say that we are prepared to meet her to put forward the Labour party’s points of view about the kind of agreement we want with the European Union in order to protect jobs, living standards, and rights and conditions in this country? It is exactly the offer that was made last September and exactly the offer that was made two weeks ago. I look forward to meeting the Prime Minister to set out those views to her on behalf of my party.”

Ultimately, if a deal is to be agreed to and ratified, the same legal requirements apply now as they did back in November. The Commons must approve the deal in a “meaningful vote”, the Lords must get to debate the deal, and Parliament as a whole must pass an Act containing provisions to implement it.

This must happen before the 29 March 2019 unless the Prime Minister seeks, and secures, an extension to Article 50(3) by a unanimous decision of the European Council.

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

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