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14 November 2017

Is a “meaningful” Commons vote on the Brexit deal even possible?

MPs should have voted for proper control over the negotiating process in February 2016.

By Stephen Bush

When is a meaningful vote not a meaningful vote? When the choice is between whatever deal Theresa May has cobbled together with the EU27 and no deal at all. But that’s the choice that will be offered to parliament, David Davis confirmed yesterday.

To be blunt, I cannot think of anything less newsworthy the Brexit Secretary could have said in the House short of announcing that his first name was “David” and his last name “Davis”. As longtime Morning Call readers will know, it was clear that in voting through Article 50 without amendments meant that parliament would surrender its most viable route to shape the government’s negotiating objectives.

It’s true that Theresa May has a troubling tendency to avoid parliamentary scrutiny wherever possible. But on this occasion, both Britain’s unwritten constitution and the EU’s I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-a-constitution aka the Lisbon Treaty also mean pretty clearly that there is not an option for a “meaningful vote” (that is to say, one that gives parliament a greater say over the outcome than “May’s way or the cliff edge”) on the final deal.

As far as the United Kingdom goes, the right to shape treaties has always been power that resides with the crown, rather than with parliament. You can say that this is a fairly big glitch in the Matrix and one that ought to have been attended to before we voted to trigger Article 50, and you’d be right. But MPs voted through Article 50 without having done so, so we are where we are.

Then as far as Article 50 goes, any deal has to be done not by March 2019 but by October 2018 in order to let the European parliament – and in those nations where the heads of governments must seek parliamentary ratification, national and regional parliaments too – ratify the agreement. Even then, it’s not clear what happens if the European parliament or the Flemish legislature votes down the agreement – does it mean that negotiators start again or does it mean the United Kingdom crashes out with no deal? That’s one reason why Theresa May should spend less time courting the British tabloids and more – that’s more spelt “any” – winning friends in the European parliament.

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A late amendment, put down by Yvette Cooper, seeks to bind the government to a meaningful vote and now we wait to see if enough Tory rebels will join with it to force the government’s hand.

But even were it to pass, it is not at all clear when a vote would occur and be “meaningful”. Would it be now, so that the British parliament could step in and demand that the government changes its approach to negotiations in order to achieve “sufficient progress” by December? In the event of talks still being deadlocked in March? Or in October 2018?

What MPs should have done is vote through meaningful control over the negotiating process in February 2016, rather than effectively cede control of the process entirely. (Even Labour’s frontbench amendments, which would have been better than what we have, would simply have given parliament greater powers of scrutiny rather than meaningful levers to shape the outcome.)

The meaningful – that word again – levers that parliamentarians can actually pull aren’t over a meaningful vote: they are its ancient powers to vote no confidence in individual ministers or in the government as a whole, to bind ministers’ hands in negotiations beforehand or to revoke (or at least seek to revoke) Article 50. But seeking a fresh vote at the end of the process will guarantee that MPs remain little more than glorified spectators in the Brexit talks.