There will be yet more extraordinary events in the House of Commons tomorrow when we will vote on a series of amendments to a motion tabled by the prime minister Theresa May. In essence, her motion says that she will seek to make changes to the “deal” she has reached with the European Union in order to address the objections raised by Brexiters on her own side and by the DUP regarding the so-called “backstop.” She wants MPs to pass the motion to illustrate support for this as the way out of the mess.
The backstop aims to stop a hard border emerging on the island of Ireland, and the prime minister believes that with some tweak of the wording in the withdrawal agreement (or an appendix or side letter to it) she will potentially be able to persuade a majority in the Commons to support her deal when she brings it back for approval for a second time next month. That is quite unlikely and, if I am right and she is unsuccessful, she will need the Commons to then take the matter out of her hands thereafter. Her problem is that if she is seen to connive with either end of the Brexit debate in her party, the resulting fury on the other wing of her party may lead to her losing a future confidence vote leading to her departure. Parliament taking the matter out of May’s hands is really the only way we can move forward towards coming to a decision on what to do next – in private conversations, ministers readily concede this.
Numerous amendments to the prime minister’s motion have been tabled by backbenchers but two, if passed, will temporarily transfer control of part of the timetabling of Commons business – which in ordinary times is principally controlled by the government – to backbench MPs. This would enable us to hold votes to break the Brexit deadlock in parliament before the scheduled exit day of 29 March 2019, which the government will have to implement.
Hardline pro-Brexit champions in May’s party oppose this and continue to invoke the result of the 2016 EU referendum to justify pursuing Brexit at any cost, to the extent of leaving without reaching an agreement with the EU.
I was on ITV’s Good Morning Britain earlier today with one of them – the deputy chair of the Tory ERG, Mark Francois – who was very keen to talk about “the will of the people” in 2016, but less keen to take note of the will of the people in the 2017 general election where the pursuit of his agenda by May lost the Tories their majority. Unsurprisingly he did not want to take a rain check on what the will of the people is in 2019 – I wonder why? He also raged against the CEO of Airbus for daring to point out just how damaging to British jobs leaving the EU with no deal would be – something the ERG promotes. According to Francois, Airbus is trying to “bully” MPs, an absurd proposition.
The two key amendments are those tabled by my Labour colleague Yvette Cooper, and the one tabled by the former Conservative attorney general Dominic Grieve. I am a signatory of both but Grieve’s amendment, in particular, is vital. Here’s why:
In short, Cooper’s amendment would clear the business of the Commons on 5 February to consider and vote on a bill she has drafted, which would force the government to apply for an extension of the Article 50 process if, on exit day, we have not reached an agreement with the EU. In her draft bill she envisages an extension of up to nine months, but the EU is unlikely to agree to that given it would require new British MEPs to be elected in May/June.
An extension until the end of June, which would not require EU elections to be held in Britain, is more likely and MPs could amend the Bill accordingly. However, EU officials have told me that an extension will only be granted for a specific purpose like the holding of a second referendum. Cooper’s bill is silent on the purpose for which an application for an extension would be made but, again, that can be returned to later.
Even if all stages of the bill can be passed on 5 February in the Commons – a tall order – the danger is that it gets held up in the House of Lords where Brexiter peers will attempt to filibuster it. Nevertheless, it could work as a legal mechanism for preventing a no deal Brexit which is why I will vote for it regardless and I would be flabbergasted if all Labour MPs are not whipped to do so (a final decision on that has yet to be made).
For the avoidance of doubt, Cooper says her goal is to delay not stop Brexit. She was clear on this yesterday on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show when she said: “If the prime minister runs out of time she may need some more time, and that is not about blocking Brexit, that is about being responsible and making sure you can try and get a Brexit deal.” She went on to declare that she wants the UK to leave the EU with a deal and said “that for me should include a customs union.”
Grieve’s amendment is complementary to hers. It simply provides for backbench MPs to take further control of Commons business – motions, votes, legislation etc – after 5 February on one day of every week the Commons is sitting between now and exit day. This is an important insurance mechanism in the event the Cooper Bill does not pass for whatever reason and needs more time for consideration. It provides a much wider canvass for MPs to intervene and determine what trajectory Brexit takes in the national interest.
Some have said Grieve’s amendment would change the constitutional arrangements between the legislature and the executive. The same could be said of Yvette’s amendment and bill. Those who complain protest too much – many Tuesday evenings and all sitting Fridays are given over to backbench business and usually a government has a majority, in which case they will always control Commons business.
Like me, Grieve makes no secret of the fact that that he does not want to facilitate Brexit but to hand the issue back to the people to decide whether to press on with this disaster. But that is not the purpose of his amendment which makes no reference to a second referendum. The focus is on giving MPs the opportunity to stop the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal.
So a lot of the next 48 hours will focus on process – not the substance of Brexit, to which minds will be forced to return after. Sooner or later we are all going to have to make a decision – do you want to facilitate Brexit or give the people the power to stop it? The people should be given a Final Say in my view. If others disagree, they must be honest about what that means – paving the way for a course of action which will make the country poorer without checking whether that is the will of the people in 2019.