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Explainer

Parliament’s 'meaningful vote' on Brexit

This explainer looks at parliament’s consideration of the Brexit deal.

Theresa May in the House of Commons during the third meaningful vote on the Brexit deal
Prime minister Theresa May is seen during the Brexit deal vote in the House of Commons, 12 March 2019.

The government stated back in October 2016 that parliament will have a vote on the Brexit deal it negotiates with the EU.

For a long time this was no more than a stated intention. However, during the passage of the EU Withdrawal Act, the cornerstone of the government’s programme of Brexit legislation, the government agreed to change its original proposed procedure for parliament’s consideration of the Brexit deal. Following negotiations with a group of pro-EU Conservative MPs, led by Dominic Grieve, Section 13 of the bill gave parliament a ‘meaningful vote’ on the deal.

The EU Withdrawal Act 2018 meant the government was not able to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement until parliament approved it

Section 13 of the EU Withdrawal Act said the government would not be able to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement unless four conditions have been met:

  1. The documents and an associated statement have been published.
  2. “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”.
  3. A subsequent debate has taken place in the House of Lords.
  4. Parliament has passed legislation to implement the Withdrawal Agreement.

This gave parliament a much stronger role in the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement than under normal parliamentary procedure set out in the 2010 Constitutional Reform and Governance Act. Under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, parliament has 21 sitting days to vote against the ratification of a treaty but there is no obligation on the government to schedule time for a vote.

In the end, after Theresa May failed to get support for her deal in the House of Commons three times, and Boris Johnson was unable to pass a meaningful vote, the government used the implementing legislation – the Withdrawal Agreement Act – to do away with the need for a meaningful vote. This legislation received Royal Assent on 23 January 2020 and allowed the UK to leave the EU with a deal on 31 January 2020.

Timeline of Brexit votes in parliament

  • December 2018: Prime Minister Theresa May originally planned to hold a vote on a motion to approve the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration on the framework for the future UK–EU relationship, as required under the EU Withdrawal Act. At the start of the debate Dominic Grieve amended the business motion to ensure that any future motions moved under the EU Withdrawal Act would be amendable. After four days of debate, it was suspended and MPs didn’t vote on the deal.
  • 15 January 2019: The House of Commons voted against the prime minister’s Brexit deal by 432–202.
  • 29 January 2019: MPs voted on a motion to ‘consider’ the prime minister’s 21 January statement on what happened next. They passed two amendments. One amendment rejected leaving the EU without a deal which, although a clear expression of political will, does not change the legal default. The second was a vote in favour of the prime minister’s deal provided “alternative arrangements” can be found for the Irish backstop.
  • 14 February 2019: MPs voted against a government motion, 303–258, after around 60 Conservative MPs on both sides of the party abstained on the vote. The motion ‘reiterate[d]’ its support for the approach to leaving the EU that MPs voted for on 29 January.
  • 27 February 2019: MPs passed a motion which ‘noted’ the statement made by the prime minister on 26 February, as well as ongoing discussions with the EU.
  • 12 March 2019: MPs voted against the prime minister’s Brexit deal, again, 242–391.
  • 13 March 2019: MPs voted on whether to leave the EU without a deal. An amendment was passed which replaced the text of the government’s motion to reject leaving without a deal in all circumstances – removing the part of the motion which acknowledged that no deal is the default unless the UK and EU ratified an agreement. As a result, the government decided to whip against the amended motion rather than allow a free vote – in effect, voting in favour of no deal. The motion as amended passed 321–278, after a number of ministers abstained (and one resigned)g
  • 14 March 2019: MPs approved the government's motion on extending Article 50 unamended 412–202 on a free vote. The motion stated that if the House approved a deal by 20 March, then the government would seek a ‘one-off extension’ until 30 June to pass necessary legislation. If the House didn’t approve a deal by that point, then the motion ‘notes’ that there would need to be a clear purpose for an extension and going beyond 30 June would require the UK to hold European Parliament elections in May.
  • 25 March 2019: MPs voted to disapply Standing Order 14(1) – which gives government business precedent – on 27 March to give an alternative business motion precedence.
  • 27 March 2019: MPs voted on a series of different Brexit options – none received a majority.
  • 29 March 2019: The government held a vote to approve the Withdrawal Agreement (without the Political Declaration on the framework for the future relationship). MPs rejected it 286–344.
  • 1 April 2019: MPs voted on four different Brexit options – none received a majority.
  • 3 April 2019: MPs pass all the stages of the EU Withdrawal (No.5) Bill in one day.
  • 8 April 2019: MPs approved amendments to the EU Withdrawal (No.5) Bill made in the House of Lords. The bill received Royal Assent.
  • 8 April 2019: MPs approved amendments to the EU Withdrawal (No.5) Bill made in the House of Lords. The bill received Royal Assent and became the EU Withdrawal Act 2019.
  • 3 September 2019: The Speaker allowed an emergency debate on a substantive motion to take control of the Commons’ order paper. MPs passed the motion 328-301. This was a controversial decision by the Speaker because emergency debates do not usually allow MPs to ‘take a decision’.
  • 4 September 2019: MPs passed all the stages of the EU Withdrawal (No.6) Bill in one day.
  • 5 and 6 September 2019: Peers passed the EU Withdrawal (No.6) Bill. The bill received Royal Assent on 9 September 2019 and became the EU Withdrawal (No.2) Act 2019.
  • 19 October 2019: Under the EU Withdrawal (No.2) Act 2019, the government would be forced to ask for an extension to Article 50 if MPs hadn’t approved leaving with a deal – or without a deal – by 19 October. The government had renegotiated the Northern Ireland protocol with the EU so held a meaningful vote on the deal. MPs passed a Letwin amendment (322–306) to the main motion which said MPs wouldn’t approve a deal until the implementing legislation had been passed – to avoid the risk of leaving without a deal if the Withdrawal Agreement Bill wasn’t passed in time.
  • 22 October 2019: MPs passed second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill 329–299 but rejected the programme motion (scheduling the rest of the stages of the bill) 308–322.
  • 20 December 2019: Following the 2019 General Election, MPs passed second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill 358-234. They also passed the programme motion 353–243.
Country (international)
European Union
Administration
May government
Legislature
House of Commons
Public figures
Theresa May
Publisher
Institute for Government

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