13 March 2019

Parliament has again rejected the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. Now MPs are the ones responsible for setting out an alternative to break the impasse, argues Maddy Thimont Jack.

MPs have voted once again against the Prime Ministers’s negotiated Withdrawal Agreement. Although the defeat was slimmer this time (a loss by 149 votes versus 230 in January), the additional assurances the Prime Minister managed to wrestle from the EU were clearly not enough to satisfy her backbenchers.

With 16 days left until the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU, what does this mean for Brexit?

Voting against no deal doesn’t take no deal off the table

MPs will have a (free) vote on the Prime Minister’s motion to reject leaving the EU without a deal and, if the Commons rejects a no deal exit, a vote on requesting an extension to the Article 50 period. Parliament may oppose both the Prime Minister’s deal and leaving the EU without a deal, but it is yet to find a majority for any clear alternative.

So even if MPs tonight vote to take no deal off the table, the legal default is still that we are leaving the EU on 29 March – with or without a deal. The only real way to avoid a no deal is for MPs to vote for a deal – the Prime Minister’s deal or any other one we manage to negotiate with the EU – or to revoke Article 50.

MPs can vote to extend Article 50 tomorrow night, but the Government still needs to explain “how long?” and “for what?”. The EU is very clear that there is nothing more it can offer – it’s up to the UK.

MPs have a chance to shape their Brexit vision

The next two votes could present the long-awaited opportunity to find out if there actually is an alternative to Theresa May’s deal.

MPs have largely avoided tabling ‘substantive amendments’ – setting out their alternative visions – to Brexit motions up until this point. Instead, they have focused on taking control of the process of Brexit. An amendment tabled two weeks ago by Labour MP Yvette Cooper and Conservative MP Oliver Letwin would have compelled the Government to hold votes on no deal and an Article 50 extension – but even then, it didn’t set out an alternative to the Prime Minister’s deal.

Other MPs have tried to amend previous motions to find time to hold indicative votes on the Brexit options. These amendments would either have taken control of parliamentary time, or required ministers to do so, in order to get a clearer idea of where support might lie.

This would be one step towards finding a majority, but amendments calling for this process have not been selected by the Speaker, due to an apparent lack of support amongst MPs. And while the Prime Minister acknowledged the House would need to figure out what it wants, she didn’t commit to giving it further time to do so.

Ultimately, the Speaker will decide which amendments are selected ahead of the next two votes, and one factor will be the level of cross-party support. MPs have a clear chance to shape a Brexit alternative. A failure to do so would make them just as culpable for this Brexit impasse as the Government.

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