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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.

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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.