Making Sense of Another Extraordinary Day in Parliament

What happened today and what does it mean?

Parliament had a busy day today and three major things took place:

1 – The Chancellor’s Spending Review

Usually, events like this are the headline news of the day. It’s worth catching up on it if you’re interested. But our focus for this is on the votes later in the day.

2 – The Brexit Delay Bill

The attention turned to the big business of the day. MPs had voted yesterday to take control of what was the agenda, and they had chosen to put this on it. The bill, tabled by Hilary Benn, blocks a no-deal Brexit and says the Prime Minister has to come up with and pass a deal of any sort in Parliament by the 19th October. If he can’t agree a deal and get it passed, then he must go back to the EU and ask for an extension of three months. This would push the date of Brexit back to the 31st January.

After much debate the result came as no surprise. The bill passed the commons with a majority of 28 – a sizeable number by parliamentary standards.

There was a bizarre moment when one of the amendments to the bill was passed almost accidentally. The Kinnock amendment stated that MPs must debate and vote on Theresa May’s exit agreement for the fourth time. It was not an amendment that was expected to pass. It did so because the government did not provide tellers (the people who count votes) for the No side. In such a case, the Yes side wins by default. A whole range of theories about why the government acted in the manner it did are doing the rounds – ultimately though, no one is quite sure.

Regardless though, the bill (unexpectedly amended as it was) was passed.

So that’s it now – the government cannot take a no-deal. Right?

Wrong. There’s still a way to go. The bill now needs to make it through the House of Lords. It is expected to, but it is not certain to. As reported yesterday, the government’s allies are looking at ways to block it, but they are unlikely to succeed. What may happen is that the Lords send the bill back to the Commons to remove the Kinnock amendment. That is unlikely, as it is deemed inconvenient but not a problem by the main supporters of the bill.

After the Lords, the bill has to get Royal Assent – approval by the Queen. By tradition, she approves what she is told to on the advice of her government. However, the government could advise her to not approve it. Were they to do this, expect a big legal challenge would follow. They are, ultimately, unlikely to try such a method but they may see it as so important, that they think such an extraordinary measure is appropriate.

We’ll have to wait and see, but answers and approval should come fast as parliament is keen to get everything done before the prorogation.

3 – The Government Called for a General Election

As promised, the government tabled a motion calling for a general election. The Prime Minister argued that it was unwanted, but ultimately needed as he accused MPs of a dereliction of their democratic duty. The opposition dismissed his claims accusing him of using an election as a ruse to pursue a no-deal Brexit anyway. As a result, the entire Labour party abstained.

Labour (along with the SNP) did, however, say that they would be up for an election but only once the Brexit delay bill has been passed into law. They claim that the government cannot be trusted. Some did argue though that they cannot justifiably turn down the opportunity of an election that they themselves have been calling for. They are in some way correct as it doesn’t look great. As noted, though, the opposition parties have been careful to state why they won’t back one on the Government’s terms and timescales, but they still want one. As a result, they have probably fought that fire. Those loyal to Mr Johnson will paint it as hypocrisy. Mr Corbyn – and indeed all opposition parties – clearly believe, though, that the short-term mocking is worth it to put himself in a more secure election fighting position.

In the end, the election was rejected as two thirds of MPs did not back one.

Does that mean that there won’t be an election until the next one is scheduled?

God no. Remember, the government now has no majority, and so cannot govern and do any governmental things. MPs have rejected the idea of an election based on the terms it was on, and with the no-deal bill awaiting confirmation. Once it passes into law, they will probably be willing to agree to one.

The government could look at other mechanisms to bring one about, but regardless of how it comes, it is likely to come soon.

So, what does all that’s gone on tonight mean for Brexit negotiations?

It might be better to ask; what negotiations?

The PM has been keen to say that negotiating power will be weakened by MPs decisions today and yesterday and that his strategy to get a deal has been thwarted… In reality though sources have revealed that there has been no sign of negotiations anyway. Remember when Angela Merkel gave him 30 days to present an Irish back-stop solution? EU leaders have said they’re yet to hear anything. And there is one reason why so many were willing to back this bill. They don’t believe the PM is serious about wanting a deal and as a result they don’t believe they’ve hindered a strategy that didn’t exist in the first place.

On the EUs side, nothing has changed. They have presented their offer of a deal; the UK government is yet to present an alternative. There have only ever been three ways Brexit can go:

  • Brexit with a deal
  • Brexit without a deal
  • No Brexit.

Since no deal is now off the table (subject to Lord’s approval), have tonight’s events brought us closer to a solution? Probably not. The bill compels the government to extend the Brexit deadline if they can’t get a deal through parliament (and there is no sign that they will be able to). The government moved to call an election before the 31st October and MPs rejected it this time, but an election will likely come at some point soon. There is still a whole lot of uncertainty surrounding the whole affair.