How will Theresa May delay the Brexit vote – and what happens next?

MPs won’t get a vote on not having a vote – and Downing Street says it won’t extend Article 50. 

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John Bercow is a man determined to show Labour MPs why they were right to keep him as Speaker rather than oust him over bullying allegations. With every Commons debate comes a profoundly unhelpful intervention from the chair, and so it was today: Bercow told MPs that it would be “deeply discourteous” if ministers postponed tomorrow’s meaningful vote without first securing their approval.

That, however, is precisely what the government has chosen to do. Addressing reporters after Theresa May’s statement this evening, the prime minister’s official spokesman confirmed that MPs will not get a vote on not having a vote.

The courteous alternative offered by Bercow – in an attempt to shame the government into compliance – would be for a minister to move a motion for the Commons to adjourn. Tory backbenchers and the DUP had made clear they would have voted against the government in such a scenario, denying it the right to defer.

The discourteous way of getting around this – which Downing Street has confirmed it will take – will see ministers simply appoint a “future day” for the remaining chunk of the meaningful vote debate, as well as the vote itself, when the order of business is read to the Commons by its clerks this evening. They will shout “tomorrow” when asked when said business will proceed, postponing it indefinitely to a date of the government’s choosing.

May’s spokesman insisted that doing so was normal parliamentary practice, most often after bills get their first reading. True though that is, ministers aren’t dealing with the next stage of the Widgets and Paperclips (Size Standardisation) Bill but an international negotiation with a hard deadline – and one that has consumed the time and energy of the legislature and executive to the exclusion of almost everything else. The procedure is the same, but the political context and consequences of its application very obviously aren’t.

The most pressing consequence of the delay is that we have no idea of when the vote will actually happen. Downing Street refused to be drawn on whether it could take place before Christmas or even in January, and nor have they set firm criteria for what exactly the prime minister needs from her round of emergency diplomacy to be ready to call it.

This prompted the question of whether she wants to reopen the binding Withdrawal Agreement, which has already been signed off by the EU27, rather than simply tinker with the non-binding political declaration on the future relationship. May’s spokesman insisted that for all the difficulties doing so would cause, nothing was entirely off the table (though Brussels has been clear it will not entertain this).

It also prompted another and perhaps more pressing question: given that the government is now entertaining the prospect of an indefinite delay to tabling the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, will it extend Article 50 to avert a no-deal scenario and ensure that Brexit legislation could pass the Commons in time?

Downing Street’s answer was a firm no – which, incidentally, was the answer it gave when asked whether it would delay the vote mere minutes before it emerged that it would do so this morning. But they would not say that there was a zero per cent chance of it happening. “We don’t play those games in the same way that we don’t pinky promise,” a spokesman said.

Given the likelihood that Westminster’s wrangling over the deal could extend well into the New Year, there may yet have to be another u-turn.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.