The Brexit “meaningful vote” has been deferred: what happens next?

The Prime Minister paused the debate and stopped MPs from taking a decision on the outcome of the EU and UK negotiations for a Brexit “deal”.  There is no date set for it to resume - and with the debate “frozen”, the UK is in limbo.

Non-approval under the UK Withdrawal Act means a no-deal Brexit. Furthermore, in this case, the Government is not required to set out and debate its contingency plans.

“Political Agreement”

Under the UK Withdrawal Act, the presence or absence of “political agreement” between the UK and the EU is important for two reasons:

To ratify the Withdrawal Agreement the UK must make a statement that “political agreement has been reached” [for the purposes of section 13(1)(a) of the Withdrawal Act].  This is one of three documents that must be laid before Parliament - alongside the negotiated “Withdrawal Agreement”; and the “framework for the future relationship” [the Political Declaration].  The Government made a statement that “political agreement had been reached” on 26 November 2018.

Should the Government conclude that “no agreement in principle can be reached” - or if we reach 21 January 2019 and “no agreement in principle has been reached” - the Government must: make a statement as to how it intends to proceed; and hold a debate for the Commons to discuss the implications.  The Government must also do this if the Commons formally decides not to approve the deal.

Is the “political agreement” between the UK and EU still valid?

Since the Prime Minister is seeking further “assurances” from the EU on the Northern Ireland Backstop provision, it is not clear whether the Government believes that it still has “political agreement” with the EU for the purposes of section 13(1)(a).

If its statement of 26 November holds and in the absence of further political developments, the Government is not legally required to make any statement on 21 January 2019.

However, the Prime Minister’s remarks on 10 December and DExEU Minister, Robin Walker, on 11 December, appear to attach legal significance to the deadline of 21 January 2019.  Theresa May mentioned “21 January” on four occasions in the House of Commons during the Urgent Question debate.

Walker said: “In the unlikely and highly undesirable circumstances that, as of 21 January, there is no deal before the House, the Government would bring a statement to the House within 5 calendar days, and arrange for a debate within 5 sitting days - as specified by the law.”

Taken together this implies that political agreement may already have lapsed – or is expected to lapse between now and 21 January 2019.  This triggers the contingency statement and Commons debate.

When might the Government bring back a deal to Parliament?

The Government could, legally, bring back a proposal to approve a deal any time before the UK formally leaves the EU.  At the moment, this means any time before 29 March 2019.

However, there are procedural requirements the Government to complete - most importantly the proposed EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill must pass the ‘deal’ in domestic law according to the Withdrawal Act 2018.

The Government has stated that it wishes Parliament to approve a deal “before 21 January”.

Walker: “Put simply, in keeping with the clear intention of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the Government will ensure that the question whether to accept an agreement is brought back to this House before 21 January.  If Parliament accepts that deal, we will introduce the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill to implement the withdrawal agreement in domestic legislation.”

However, legally the Government could make a statement that “political agreement has been reached” on 20 January - and then schedule a “meaningful vote” for some point in February or March – which would supersede any requirement to make a statement on its contingency plans.

There are two constraints on the holding of the “meaningful vote” - whether by resuming the frozen debate or bringing forward a new one:

  • the Government must “so far as is practicable” seek to hold that vote before the European Parliament votes on whether to consent to the deal – and they are not expected to do this until early March 2019;

  • the vote must take place before the UK formally exits the EU, since the withdrawal agreement must be ratified before then.

Without Parliamentary approval for the deal before 21 January 2019, the chances of a no-deal Brexit on 29 March 2019 are vastly increased.

The EU announced this week that it was stepping up preparations across the 27 remaining member states – with another tranche of no-deal Technical Notices due to be published on 19 December that every UK citizen and business needs to factor into their no-deal planning and preparations.

John ShuttleworthComment