A clever cross-party amendment rejects Theresa May’s miserable deal, rejects crashing out of the EU with no deal at all and insists that MPs can change any new plan the government dreams up. As such, it helps answer the criticisms that voting down the deal means we will quit with no deal and that Parliament will not be able to tell the prime minister what to do.
The MPs want to amend the government’s motion to approve May’s deal in the so-called “meaningful vote” on December 11. If it is passed – and there seems a good chance that it will be – Parliament would be taking back control of Brexit from the prime minister and imposing its own will on the process. When all the shouting is done, they are likely to back a People’s Vote with an option to stay in the EU.
The amendment was put down yesterday by Hilary Benn, the Labour MP who chairs the backbench Brexit committee. He is supported by a powerful phalanx of backbenchers from across the political divide – including Dominic Grieve and Sarah Wollaston from the Tories, and Rachel Reeves and Yvette Cooper from Labour
The Labour leadership is also backing the amendment. Keir Starmer, the opposition Brexit spokesperson, said today it had his “full support”. That’s not surprising. The text is similar to Labour’s own amendment. Sensibly Starmer is allowing the cross-party backbench amendment to take centre stage, as it will be much easier for non-Labour MPs then to rally behind it.
There may be other amendments to the government’s motion. But this is the big one – and the one the prime minister will struggle to defeat.
Bye bye Project Fear, hello People’s Vote
If the amendment passes, not only will May’s miserable deal have been defeated, the door will then be open to a sensible debate about what to do next. Her Project Fear – threatening MPs with the abyss if they don’t buy her deal – will have been scotched.
Sceptics will point out that such an amendment won’t be legally binding. But woe betide the prime minister if she defies the will of Parliament after failing to pass her flagship policy.
The kicker in Benn’s amendment is a clause that will let MPs amend the “follow-on” motion that the government is required to produce setting out what it wants to do if the motion approving its deal is rejected. Under legislation passed during the summer, it has to present a plan to MPs within 21 days and put it to the vote within seven “sitting” days of that. After taking account of the Christmas holidays, the final deadline is January 15.
The government insists that this “follow-on” motion would be in so-called neutral terms, meaning that MPs would merely note what it planned to do next. But Benn’s amendment suspends the part of the House of Commons’ Standing Orders which says such motions can’t be changed.
What this means is that, if Benn gets his way, MPs will be in the driving seat. They will no doubt spend a bit of time on the Norway Plus blind alley – which would have us stay in the single market and customs union, following the EU’s rules and trade policies without a say on them.
But MPs will probably rapidly conclude that the only sensible option is a People’s Vote. Indeed, with Labour’s John McDonnell saying earlier this week that such a vote would be “inevitable”, it’s hard to see any other outcome.
Sceptics will pipe up again and say that Parliament can’t force the government’s hand if it doesn’t want to pass the legislation that would be required to hold a People’s Vote. But that’s not true. When the follow-on motion comes to the vote, MPs could easily amend it to suspend further parts of the Standing Orders so they can take control of the Parliamentary timetable and pass their own emergency legislation. Again, it would be foolish for the prime minister to try to stop them.
This is a parliamentary democracy. If MPs want something enough, they will ultimately get it.