Three years on, we still don’t know if we’re leaving the EU – parliament decided nothing once again

Another ‘meaningful vote’ turned out not to be so. To most people it must look as if parliament doesn’t know what it is doing

John Rentoul
in Westminster
Sunday 20 October 2019 09:31 BST
MPs vote to delay the approval of Boris Johnson's Brexit deal until related legislation has passed

The parliament of indecision has decided nothing again. It voted today to delay the vote on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal until after he has got the legislation to implement it through parliament.

If you are Oliver Letwin, the temporarily ex-Tory who proposed the crucial amendment, this is entirely sensible. He does not want Britain to find itself leaving the EU on 31 October without the laws in place to manage it – that would, indeed, be a disorderly Brexit.

But to most people it must look as if parliament doesn’t know what it is doing. We still do not know, three years after the referendum, whether Britain will leave the EU or not. All we know is that it wasn’t decided today, just as it wasn’t decided on any of the great parliamentary moments in January and March. Each meaningful vote turned out not to be.

So next week the confusion and uncertainty continues.

John Bercow, the speaker, said he was “blindsided” by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the prime minister’s manager of parliamentary business, who announced the government would ask for another meaningful vote on Monday. I doubt that this will happen. Bercow is likely to rule that the government cannot table the same motion again. So the important business next week will be the bill (known as the withdrawal agreement bill, or WAB) which the government will introduce. Passing that bill will be, in effect, the decision on the Brexit deal that was postponed today.

But it is not simple. The prime minister wants to get the bill on to the statute book before 28 October, which is when EU leaders might hold an emergency summit to consider the request he has been forced to send, asking for a Brexit extension. In order to do that, he will need MPs to vote for an unusually tight timetable to get the bill through.

I can remember when officials working for Theresa May once said they would need six months to get the necessary Brexit legislation through parliament. By the end of her time, they said they needed six weeks. Now, Boris Johnson is hoping to get his bill through in six days. By Tuesday, we may find that he is asking parliament to pass it in six hours.

That will probably be the next important vote. The government will need to propose a “programme motion” on Tuesday setting out its intended timetable for the bill. Oliver Letwin should vote with the prime minister this time. He said today that, despite having inflicted a defeat on the government, he shared its determination to get Britain out of the EU on 31 October.

But there are others of the soft Brexit tendency who might vote against the government to demand that MPs be given more time to scrutinise such important legislation.

Philip Hammond and David Gauke, other former ministers who are now former Conservatives too, have expressed worries about the new “cliff edge” – the no-deal Brexit that would happen at the end of the transitional period if a new trade deal has not been negotiated with the EU by the end of next year. They may want to amend the bill to try to prevent that situation arising. Others will want to try to insert a Final Say referendum.

If MPs vote against the government’s tight timetable for the legislation, then it could take weeks to pass the bill. That would mean the EU would have to grant another extension, and Johnson would be humiliated again.

And we still won’t know if the bill will eventually pass.

Today’s vote – a margin of 16 against the government but with supporters of a Brexit deal, such as Letwin, prepared to switch sides – suggests that whenever the next so-called “meaningful vote” comes, there could be just one or two votes in it.

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Extraordinary though it may seem, we still don’t know whether Britain will leave the EU – or, if it does, when.

We may leave in less than two weeks, on 31 October, which would be an extraordinary triumph for Boris Johnson.

Or we may not.

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