Has the UK parliament really taken back control of Brexit from Theresa May?

Dominic GrieveGetty

  • The House of Commons passed a Brexit amendment on Wednesday designed to force the prime minister to immediately come up with a "Plan B" if her deal with the EU is rejected by MPs.
  • The "meaningful vote" amendment was heralded as parliament "taking back control" of Brexit.
  • However, parliamentary procedure experts insist that the amendment leaves the timetable for any second vote on May's deal essentially unchanged.
  • While there will be political pressure on May not to run down the clock she is under no legal obligation to do so.

LONDON - Theresa May's government was furious on Wednesday after the House of Commons Speaker John Bercow upended constitutional convention to let MPs vote on a motion which was designed to prevent the prime minister from "running down the clock" if she loses the vote on her Brexit deal next week.

The motion, brought forward by the former Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve, was subsequently backed by a majority of MPs, leading to widespread reports that MPs had "taken back control" of the Brexit process from May's government.

Had they really?

Well, not quite. While the intention of Grieve's amendment was to buy MPs an extra fortnight in which to shape the next stage of the process if, as expected, May's deal is voted down, Downing Street insisted on Thursday that this was a misreading of the amendment.

They pointed to advice they had received suggesting that while the amendment does mean they must bring a new motion forward within three sitting days, it does not oblige them to "move" that motion.

In other words, while Grieve's amendment will require the the government to set out what it plans to do if and when May's deal is voted down, it does not oblige them to put those plans immediately to a vote.

This interpretation was confirmed by parliamentary procedure experts Business Insider spoke to on Thursday, who suggested that Grieve's amendment essentially leaves the original timetabling procedure for any second "meaningful vote" on the Brexit deal untouched.

Technically, it changes nothing.

So does Grieve's amendment actually make any difference?

Tory MP and former Attorney General Dominic GrieveTory MP and former Attorney General Dominic GrievePeter Macdiarmid / Getty

Under Section 13 of the EU Withdrawal Act, the UK government has not 3 days, but 21 days to bring forward a statement on its next move if May's deal is voted down by MPs on Tuesday. Once that statement has been made, the government has a further seven House of Commons sitting days to move a vote on it.

Importantly, Grieve's amendment does not change that legally binding timetable.

So does that mean that the prime minister could still run down the clock in a hope to force through her deal?

It's certainly possible. And in that sense the Grieve amendment technically doesn't change anything.

However, doing so would go clearly against the spirit and intention of the amendment and be a provocation of the roughly 20 Remainer Conservative rebels MPs who have already demonstrated their willingness to vote against the government.

It would also be a provocation of the Commons Speaker, who has already demonstrated his determination to hand maximum powers to MPs.

And this is the crucial point. While technically Grieve's amendment may not have tied the government's hands, politically it is a clear demonstration of Parliament's will to shape the Brexit process.

The point that is often lost is that the meaningful vote is just the first step to ratifying the Brexit deal.

The meaningful vote may be important, but it is merely a precursor to the far more challenging process of passing the deal into legislation through the Withdrawal and Implementation Bil.

It is perfectly possible to imagine May managing to squeak her deal through the meaningful vote process, only for it to fall once she attempts to turn it into legislation. And if she fails to pass that bill by March 29, then the withdrawal treaty she has agreed with the EU becomes null and void.

mps house of commonsUK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

A useful comparison here is with the House of Lords Reform Bill brought forward by the Conservative-led coalition government in 2012.

The bill, which would have made the UK Parliament's upper chamber mostly elected, was supported in principle by Conservative MPs and the Labour opposition at its Second Reading in the Commons.

However, despite the Conservative and Liberal Democrat government having a clear parliamentary majority and despite all three major parties being committed to reform, the bill ultimately failed after MPs were unable to agree on the so-called Programme Motion for the bill.

Getting a Brexit deal passed into legislation by MPs would be significantly harder than passing reform of the Lords, even if May had possession of a clear governing majority, which she does not.

For this reason, any further attempt by May to "run down the clock" as her opponents accuse her of attempting, would only make the process of passing her deal even harder both in political and logistical terms.

So Grieve's amendment, while technically not forcing May to speed up the process, is a clear demonstration of Parliament's political will to move on to debate and vote on possible alternatives to her deal.

Were May to simply ignore that, then she would make the process of getting any Brexit Withdrawal bill through Parliament even more difficult than it already is.

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