David Davis gave the appearance of a concession when he announced that MPs would vote on the government’s final Brexit deal in the form of a parliamentary bill. Labour’s Keir Starmer hailed a “significant climbdown from a weak government on the verge of defeat”. The new bill will be amendable by MPs and will receive greater parliamentary scrutiny than secondary legislation.
But it swiftly became clear that the concession is less significant than it appears. To gasps from MPs, Davis confirmed that the UK would still leave the EU without a deal if the Commons voted against the government’s agreement. With this declaration, the Brexit Secretary is holding a gun to MPs’ heads. Were Britain to leave with no deal, the UK would face punitive tariffs, chaos at ports and even grounded flights. But to avoid this outcome, MPs would be forced to accept the Conservatives’ “hard Brexit”, including withdrawal from the single market and the customs union. To adapt Theresa May, “no deal” would not be better than a bad deal – but neither is desirable.
By enshrining the UK’s scheduled departure date in law (29 March 2019), the government is also seeking to close down the possibility of an extension in the negotiations (during which time a new election or new referendum could be held). Davis also refused to guarantee that the vote would be held before the UK leaves (merely stating that this was a “principal policy aim”), and confirmed that MPs would have no right to veto a “no deal” scenario. In short, as May once remarked, nothing has changed.