I listened carefully to the statements in Parliament last week by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, questioning them both. I have studied documents supplied to the House of Commons Procedure Committee and evidence given to the Constitution and Public Administration Committee by the Clerks. It’s complicated!
When and if the Government makes a withdrawal agreement it will present it for approval to the Commons, where the Government’s motion can be carried, rejected, or amended.
The Government needs clearly expressed approval to proceed to ratify the agreement with the EU, so any amendment framed in terms which clouds that issue will have the effect of preventing that ratification, which means leaving with no deal.
If amendments seek to change parts of the agreement, they will be merely expressions of opinion, because they will not themselves change the agreement that has been made.
Equally, were the amendment to order the Government to, say, go back to the EU and seek an extension to the Article 50 negotiations, or to introduce legislation to give effect to that, or to arrange a further referendum, then again, these would merely be expressions of opinion: because in terms of law and procedure the Commons does not have the power to force the Government to do any of these things.
Of course, in the past the success of such amendments against the expressed wish of the PM would have amounted to a vote of no confidence in the Government and would have meant a general election. The Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011 has however, changed all that: defeating the Government on an EU withdrawal agreement motion would not now amount to a vote of no confidence.
The Withdrawal Act 2018 is already law, and that law says that we leave the EU on 29 March 2019.
So the much trumpeted ‘meaningful vote’ on the agreement does in the end come down to this:
Either the Commons accepts the deal negotiated, or we leave with no deal.
Inevitably there will be a temptation for BREXIT true-believers to reject the compromises that any negotiation involves, and save the £39 Billion, by voting down the Government’s withdrawal agreement- if it gets one, safe the knowledge that BREXIT is secure because we are leaving on 29th March whatever.
All this is based on law and procedure, but it doesn’t take into account the politics, and politics is entirely unpredictable. What would really happen if the Commons threw out the PM’s negotiated agreement?
Could she really survive?
Would the Government really simply plough on to a no-agreement exit on 29 March in the face of Parliamentary and public opposition?
I recall David Cameron insisting that his administration would continue irrespective of the referendum result in 2016, but look how that ended.
Notwithstanding the law and parliamentary procedure, voting down a withdrawal agreement could still set in train a set of uncontrollable and unpredictable events, and that is something I and my BREXIT-supporting colleagues will have to consider very carefully when we scrutinise whatever deal it is that the PM has been able to make. In the end it will be down to our assessment of all the risks.
…but hey, there is still the possibility of an all-singing, all-dancing deal