The Brexit war of attrition continues

Published: 23 October 2019
Author: Richard Parry

Richard Parry reviews yet more dramatic days in the House of Commons.

The talk had been of how Boris Johnson would find a loophole to evade asking for an extension beyond 31 October. In the event Oliver Letwin and his cross-party supporters had to close a loophole in their own EU Withdrawal (No 2) Act 2019 once a deal was secured. The Act required ministers to lay any withdrawal agreement before the Commons so that MPs could have the chance to approve it by 19 October. It made no mention of withholding approval until implementing legislation was passed.

On that basis, it was dubious for the Speaker to select the Letwin amendment, which had been drafted to secure the support of independent ex-Conservatives leaning in favour of the deal (Ken Clarke, Gaulke, Philip Hammond, Letwin, Rudd and Sandbach). The Labour rebellion was contained at 9 (Barron, Campbell, Fitzpatrick, Flint, Hoey, Mann and abstaining Cooper, Champion and Onn). Applying stated or likely voting intentions on the deal to the 322-306 vote in support of the Letwin amendment, it suggested something like a 320-315 vote in favour of the deal.

Boris Johnson secured a deal that brought on board his entire parliamentary party. Despite being a minority government without the support of the DUP on this issue, he putatively got it through the Commons. Casting adrift the DUP was the gamble of his post-referendum life and it worked.

The just-enough Labour rebellion fuelled suggestions that Labour would find it more comfortable to fight a post-Brexit election when they could advance their plans for the long-term relationship with the EU and leave the Liberal Democrats and SNP squirming on ‘do you want to rejoin?’ Certainly Sarah Champion and Melanie Onn popped up as new rebels the day before the vote.

Meaningful Vote 4 will not now take place, as the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill (WAB) makes its own passage sufficient consent (clause 32 repeals section 13 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 which set the terms of these votes). The second reading vote for the Bill on 22 October, 329-299, was less significant than that on the Letwin amendment as it seemed to imply a licensed Labour rebellion by 19 MPs. Many are low-profile but they included Lisa Nandy, Ruth Smeeth and Gareth Snell who for years had wanted to express respect for the pro-leave nature of their constituencies, and the heavyweight names of Jon Cruddas and Dan Jarvis. Compared with Saturday, Ronnie Campbell and Kate Hoey abstained. The vote against the timetable motion (322-308) was largely identical to that on the Letwin amendment, Letwin himself being the main switcher to government support.

The Benn Act also neglected to require the Prime Minister to sign the extension letter, allowing him to make mischief with his multiple messages. The Act’s drafters, including Lord Pannick, declined to press any suggestions of non-compliance in the English courts but the Court of Session continued proceedings on 21 October, allowing them to maintain a legal supervision of the duties laid down by the Act. Donald Tusk’s statements treated the extension request as properly made by the UK government. The last extension on 10 April allowed withdrawal on the first day of the month following ratification by the UK and European Parliaments; 31 October was an end-date only.  Such a rolling extension may be envisaged now once EU consultations, not requiring a European Council to be convened, are complete. 

A secure second referendum would put Remain against a WAB passed by Parliament.  We are a long way from that because so many supporting second reading did so as a means of amending the bill. The extensive order-making power in the WAB and its effect on the devolved administrations cries out for extended scrutiny. The prospect would be of weeks or months of parliamentary attrition. The call for a general election may be irresistible. It will require even more tactical and campaigning virtuosity by the opposition parties to avoid the risk of a clear Conservative majority able to push through the deal quickly and then shape the UK’s long-term relationship with the EU.

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