Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. The Staggers
10 December 2018

Don’t believe the hype: There’s no pain free way for the government to cancel the meaningful vote

The paths forward are either uncertain or merely aggravate the government’s Brexit problem.

By Stephen Bush

Is Downing Street going to pull the looming vote on the withdrawal agreement? That’s the question that everyone is asking, and according to several well-placed sources – and essentially every media outlet in the known universe –  it is set to do so later this afternoon.

There’s just one problem: it is quite difficult to work out how the government means to do this. To can the vote, you need parliament’s approval to pass a new programme motion. But of course, it is not clear that the government has the votes to pass a new programme motion to do so. Given that Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House, is due to make a statement after Theresa May’s speech, it may be that this is the route they are going for. But they are highly unlikely to be able to win the vote.

There are however a couple of procedural tricks they could pull to get out of it. The first is for a minister to “talk out” the vote, by standing at the despatch box and talking until time runs out. The problem is that you would need one of the ministers due to speak to have the ability or the appetite to speak for in excess of eight hours, to become the target of Brexiteer and Remainer ire just to save Theresa May’s bacon. So that’s out.

Another way is to simply not to pass the continuation motion – this is the motion that the House passes as a matter of course to resume parliamentary business left over from the last session. If that motion isn’t passed, the leftover business just sits in a weird limbo state, in theory available to be called forward at any time but in practice left permanently in stasis. The risk here is that, although I can’t myself find a way for backbenchers to bring this motion forward without the government’s consent, that doesn’t mean that a way can’t be found.

Don’t forget, either, that any of these procedural tricks are going to have two consequences. The first is that they are going to really irritate MPs; the second is that it will further underline that May’s deal has no way of passing. Both of those factors will increase, rather than decrease, the difficulty of passing any resolution to the Brexit crisis through the House.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

And that’s the problem with talking about the government canning the vote. It is not certain that it is within the government’s gift to pull the vote – and anything they do to do so may simply make things worse.

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action