Countdown to Brexit: 14 days – The UK is no closer to certainty on the terms or the timing of Brexit

Thursday saw the third day of ‘chain-linked’ Brexit debates and votes in the Commons.  It stemmed from Tuesday’s rejection of the Government's Brexit ‘deal’ - for the second time - in a 'meaningful vote'; which triggered Wednesday’s debate - and a rejection of a 'no deal' Brexit for all time.

This triggered the debate on “extending the Article 50 period” beyond the ‘default’ legal situation that is presently enshrined in both UK and EU law – a Brexit at 23:00 GMT on Friday 29 March. - with or without a deal.  The Brexit date is hard-coded into UK Law in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act - that was added to the Statute Book in June last year.

The date was established under ‘Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (2009)’ – which specifies “a two-year period between the member state triggering the Article and the day that the state leaves the European Union”. The UK Government triggered Article 50 on 29 March 2017.

If the Article 50 period were to be ‘extended’, the UK would remain a full member of the European Union during this period.

However, it is not a matter for Parliament alone to decide.  The process would be that the UK would apply for an extension giving a “credible justification” - setting out clearly both the duration and the purpose of any extension.  The European Union is duty bound to ‘consider’ the request.  It will only be granted with the ‘unanimous agreement of each of the 27 remaining EU member states’ -and by ‘a majority vote in the European Parliament’.

Other external events impact and restrict the options for the timing of an extension.  The Prime Minister has a mandate to request a ‘short’ extension until 30 June - for the purpose of passing the necessary EU exit legislation to close her ‘deal’.  Note that this date appears to comply with the finding of the European Court of Justice that the UK would need to hold European Parliament elections – scheduled for late May 2019 – if the extension goes beyond the opening date of the new European Parliament on 2 July.

This also plays into to her strategy of bringing back her ‘deal’ to Parliament for a third time by Wednesday 20 March – just ahead of the European Council meeting of the 28 Heads of State on 21-22 March in Brussels.  The published Council agenda includes: “The EU27 leaders will meet on 21 March 2019 to discuss the latest developments following the United Kingdom's notification under Article 50.”

Meanwhile, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage - who is still an MEP and drawing a salary as such from the EU – spoke in Strasbourg to BBC’s Andrew Neil while the Commons were voting to rule out a no- deal Brexit on Tuesday.  He said that he “never trusted the British political class to honour the 2016 Brexit referendum and that he had been “preparing for some time for this type of scenario”.  He has declared his intention to lobby EU countries ahead of the European Council summit to “do my best to obtain a veto” and “make sure one of them vetoes a possible extension of Article 50 past the 29 March deadline”. 

Later that day, following the Commons vote against no-deal Brexit - Prime Minister Theresa May said she would ask for “a short, limited technical extension” - but warned that in the absence of support by parliament for her deal as presented: “there will need to be a much longer extension” to the 29 March departure date.

All the amendments to Thursday’s motion were defeated.  The main motion in the name of the Prime Minister was passed by 413 – 202 votes.  Core elements of the motion in summary are:

  • “the Government will seek to agree with the European Union a one-off extension of the period specified in Article 50 for a period ending on 30 June 2019 for the purpose of passing the necessary EU exit legislation”; and

  • “it is highly likely that the European Council at its meeting the following day would require a clear purpose for any extension, not least to determine its length, and that any extension beyond 30 June 2019 would require the United Kingdom to hold European Parliament elections in May 2019.”

MPs from across the House had tabled multiple amendments to this motion.  The Speaker - as is his duty to Parliament - selected which amendments will be debated and voted on.  His selection proved highly controversial – as much for those that were left out as for those that were selected:

The amendments voted on are listed in the background information, below.

What happens Next

The Prime Minister will attempt to get a majority vote in Parliament in favour of her deal on or before Wednesday 20 March:

  • If successful, she has a mandate from Parliament to request an extension of Article 50 from the EU – likely to short term (UK to leave the EU no later than 30 June) and for the purposes of completing the program of domestic legislation necessary for Brexit;

  • In unsuccessful, she may choose to use the mandate from Parliament to request longer extension – up to two years – for the purposes of clarifying the terms that would be acceptable to the British people and Parliament;

For any extension to be constitutional and legal in the UK, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act – which received its Royal Assent and became law on 26 June 2018 – will need to be amended as the leaving date of 29 March 2019 is included in the text of the Act.  We wait guidance from the constitutional experts as to how – and how quickly - this can be completed.  If it takes longer than the time available to 23:00 GMT on Friday 29 March 2019 – the UK Legal ‘default’ is a Brexit whether under the terms of Mrs May’s deal or an ‘accidental’ no-deal.

References

a-delay-to-brexit-is-technically-possible-but-its-complex-and-may-not-be-granted-even-if-the-uk-did-request-it

what-must-happen-in-parliament-to-avoid-an-accidental-no-deal-brexit

Background

Details on the Debate on requesting an extension to Brexit on 29 March 2019 from the Order Paper

MPs will debate on 14 March 2019 a motion in the name of the Prime Minister: “That this House:

notes the resolutions of the House of 12 and 13 March, and accordingly agrees that the Government will seek to agree with the European Union an extension of the period specified in Article 50(3);

agrees that, if the House has passed a resolution approving the negotiated withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship for the purposes of section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 by 20 March 2019, then the Government will seek to agree with the European Union a one-off extension of the period specified in Article 50(3) for a period ending on 30 June 2019 for the purpose of passing the necessary EU exit legislation; and

notes that, if the House has not passed a resolution approving the negotiated withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship for the purposes of section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 by 20 March 2019, then it is highly likely that the European Council at its meeting the following day would require a clear purpose for any extension, not least to determine its length, and that any extension beyond 30 June 2019 would require the United Kingdom to hold European Parliament elections in May 2019.”

The full list of amendments to the motion – including those accepted for debate and vote by the Speaker

The amendments being to be voted on, in order are:

H. Cross-party request for second referendum.  Tabled by former Tory Sarah Wollaston, now of the Independent Group, and signed by around 30 MPs, this seeks a delay for a new referendum, which would have remain as an option. The amendment was defeated by 85 - 343 votes.  This meant that Amendment I was to be put to a vote;

If it passes, amendments I and E would not be voted on.

I. Benn amendment - A cross-party group of senior backbenchers have submitted an amendment that, if passed, would allow the Commons to debate next steps on Brexit on Wednesday next week. The motion, handed in a few minutes before the 10.30am deadline, is signed by Labour’s Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper and Conservatives Oliver Letwin and Dominic Grieve, as well SNP, Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru MPs. The amendment says it is designed “to enable the House of Commons to find a way forward that can command majority support” by effectively allowing MPs to wrest control of parliamentary time from Theresa May’s government.

There is also an amendment to this amendment, from Labour’s Lucy Powell, changing the timing, which Bercow also allowed.   This late amendment put a time limit of 30 June in order to complete this was defeated by 314 - 311 votes. 

The Benn amendment was defeated by 314 – 312 votes.  This meant that Amendment E was to be put to a vote;

E. Labour amendment - Led by Jeremy Corbyn, this notes the rejection by parliament of May’s Brexit plan, and of no deal, and says the government should “provide parliamentary time for this house to find a majority for a different approach”.  It would take control of the Brexit process out of the hands of Government and put it into the hands of Parliament.  It was defeated by 318 – 302 votes.

J. Bryant amendment - Notes that the guide to parliamentary procedure, Erskine May, states a motion or an amendment which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided in the affirmative or negative during the current session may not be brought forward again during that session. If this amendment was passed it could give the Speaker the power to block another vote on May’s deal as it has been voted down twice by parliament already.  The amendment was withdrawn without a vote.

Amendments not selected for votes:

A. Plaid Cymru amendment - This amendment, signed by Plaid’s four MPs, called for a delay to Brexit until 2021, and a second referendum at the end of this.

B. Ruling out a second referendum - Signed by more than 100 MPs, mainly Conservative but also Labour’s Caroline Flint and Gareth Snell, this stated that “the result of the 2016 EU referendum should be respected and that a second EU referendum would be divisive and expensive, and therefore should not take place”.

C. Revoke article 50 - Put forward by the SNP’s Angus Brendan MacNeil and Tory remainer Ken Clarke, and signed by about 30 other MPs, this called for the entire Brexit process to be cancelled.

D. Liberal Democrat second referendum plan - Tabled by the the Lib Dems’ 11 MPs, this also called for a Brexit delay and a second referendum.

F. SNP/Plaid second referendum plan - Yet another extension/second referendum amendment, this also called for remain to be an option in the referendum, and for the revocation of article 50 to be possible in the interim.

G. The Chope amendment - Tabled by Conservative Brexiter and regular malcontent Christopher Chope – and signed only by him – it said Brexit should be delayed for two months “for the specific purpose of replacing the UK negotiating team”.

 

John ShuttleworthComment