The ‘Cooper-Letwin bill’ – formally the EU Withdrawal (No.5) Bill – requires the Government to request an extension to the Article 50 period and get parliamentary approval for the agreed extension date.
MPs passed the Bill last night in five hours. The speed was necessary to get the legislation in place before the European Council scheduled for 10 April, and ahead of 12 April – the date at which the UK is scheduled to leave the EU without a deal.
But the perils of legislating against a very hard deadline and a very narrow majority were on display. Fifteen pages of “manuscript amendments” were put down to a bill that barely exceeded a page, causing House of Commons printer to crash. The rush led to chaos on the floor of the House as MPs were confused about which amendments had been selected for debate without the text setting out what they actually did to the bill. And there was anger from opponents to the bill as it was eventually passed – by a majority of one – at 11pm last night.
The House of Commons witnessed the first tie in a major vote since votes on the EU Maastricht Treaty in 1993. MPs voted 310-310 on Labour MP Hilary Benn’s proposal to take control of parliamentary time for another round of indicative votes. The Speaker, who in the event of a tie must cast a decisive vote, chose to follow precedent and voted against the amendment – in keeping with the principle of not creating a majority where there isn’t on.
This wasn’t the last close vote of the evening. Second reading of the EU Withdrawal (No.5) Bill passed by a majority of five, and third reading by a majority of only one. Although the bill ended up squeaking through, the tightness of the divisions underlines the Prime Minister’s challenge.
In a House split down the middle, the Prime Minister must create a stable majority which is capable of passing not just the meaningful vote on whatever deal eventually emerges but also the complicated and inevitably controversial Withdrawal Agreement Bill to allow the UK to ratify it. The vote of every single MP counts.
The majority of amendments were rejected last night – with the Government suffering the second biggest defeat (220-400) in recent history on one which would have given it more flexibility in negotiating an extension with the EU. This defeat was down to 91 Conservative MPs defying the whip to vote against them – with members of the European Research Group (ERG) appearing to be reunited in their opposition to the Government.
This vote shows how winning over the ERG is crucial to Theresa May’s search for a majority, but we also saw the gulf between what the ERG wants and what the rest of the Commons will accept. The Brexiteers tried to amend the bill to limit the length of any Article 50 extension to 22 May – to avoid holding European Parliament elections. But this was rejected decisively – by a majority of 365. The indicative votes process has also shown that a majority in Parliament is most likely to coalesce around a ‘softer Brexit’. The problem for Theresa May is that a soft Brexit majority would be without the support of a significant number of Conservative MPs.
3. Parliament is willing to accept a long extension (and by implication, European Parliament elections)
In rejecting the ERG amendment which would have limited an extension to 22 May, Parliament showed that it was unwilling to tie the Government’s hands when it goes back to the EU. So with the clock ticking – and no clear idea of what kind of future relationship will actually command the majority in the House of Commons – it is looking increasingly likely that the Government will need to ask for a longer extension from the EU. Last night, Parliament seemed to suggest it would be willing to accept that – and the European Parliament elections which would come with it.
The Cooper-Letwin bill was tabled because MPs no longer trust the Government to stick to its commitments. The Government had already committed to requesting an extension to Article 50 at next week’s EU Council – but that wasn’t enough for the Commons.
The bill requires parliamentary approval for the length of the extension, and MPs were not willing to give the Government any wiggle room. Parliament is keen to ensure it will be able to stay in control of the Brexit process.
The EU Withdrawal (No.5) Bill does not remove the possibility of no deal entirely – although it does significantly reduce the risk that could happen on 12 April. Only forcing the Government to revoke Article 50 would truly take no deal off the table. But MPs do not – at this stage – want to legislate for that.