Few parliaments can match the House of Commons for ancient, arcane and apparently incomprehensible traditions and procedures. And MPs were given an intensive lesson by the grand master in procedure on Wednesday (31 October).
Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing to stop MPs voting again and again until they back a Brexit withdrawal deal, Sir David Natzler, the Clerk and principal constitutional adviser to the Commons, told the deputies on Wednesday.
“If it plainly was the will of the House, there are ways that could happen,” said Sir David, resplendent in his Clerk’s uniform of white bow tie.
“I don’t think the procedures of the House are designed to obstruct the necessary business of government on such a crucial thing,” he added.
Sir David’s procedural advice could not have come at a more opportune time.
While talks between EU and UK negotiators remain deadlocked, primarily over the interminable Irish border question, the prospect of Theresa May being able to strike a deal in Brussels and then see it rejected at home has increased in recent weeks.
In June, MPs narrowly backed an EU withdrawal bill that transferred the entire EU acquis into UK domestic law. However, in a bid to face off defeat, the May government agreed to give MPs a ‘meaningful vote’ on any deal brokered by the government and the EU.
But Natzler made clear that MPs can’t use their ‘meaningful vote’ to block the Brexit process and keep the UK in the EU, or to force another referendum. That would require a new law, which the government isn’t going to table.
Nor did the parliamentary procedure guru tire of repeating that however ‘meaningful’ the vote on the final resolution, it didn’t necessarily carry any legal weight. Unlucky souls who have ever had to follow the European Parliament’s ‘own-initiative reports’ – which are important to the MEPs involved but nobody else – will know the feeling.
“Although this may matter politically, it does not matter statutorily,” said Sir David, later adding that “these are merely House procedures…there is simply a duty to move a motion.”
Used to being reminded of their own importance, MPs struggled to get their heads around this.
Even a motion instructing the government to go back to the negotiating table wouldn’t legally force the government to do so. In practice, of course, May would either have to go back to Brussels, or resign.
David Davis, who resigned as Brexit Secretary in July, predicted on Wednesday that a Brexit deal would eventually be struck at the second or third attempt.
“I think the irrational fear of no deal, a WTO deal – that will win and there will be a deal. It may be a deal that’s agreed in Brussels and fails in Westminster and comes back again, it may take two passes,” said Davis.
MPs spent an hour picking Sir David’s brains. In the end, they will have gone away with cause for comfort, but so will the ever-beleaguered prime minister. MPs now know that they have multiple chances to embarrass the government, but Mrs May knows that she has more than one chance to get Brexit through before March 29.
by Alexandra Brzozowski
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