Chris White was Special Adviser to Patrick McLoughlin, when the latter served as Chief Whip, as well as to Andrew Lansley and William Hague when each served as Leader of the House. He is now Managing Director of Newington Communications.
On Tuesday, the Government will face its toughest test – trying to get its Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament. Eight hours of debate will be followed by a series of votes that will decide the future of the UK, as well as the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party. The stakes could not be higher.
Over 100 Conservative MPs have publicly declared they will vote against the Theresa May’s deal. Yet it is important to remember that there might not even be a vote on the deal. Equally, an amendment could pass which if won, would mean no vote on the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement. Below I set out what could happen, as well as translate what the motions actually mean.
The Government caves in and changes the Parliamentary business, or fails to move the vote, because it knows it is going to lose
The numbers look terrible for the Government, and there have been no MPs who have publicly swapped sides to endorse the Prime Minister’s deal. The reality of the situation is that the Government knows that it is going to lose, and so could decide to pull the vote and seek state that it accepts it won’t get it through Parliament. Graham Brady, Chair of the 1922 Committee, took the highly unusual step of recommending this in the media. This would be highly embarrassing, but would avoid a humiliating defeat, with the Prime Minister forced to go back to Brussels to renegotiate. There are two ways of doing this, though it is inconceivable that the latter would be pursued due to the uproar in the Commons, and the possibility that the Speaker might ‘interpret’ the rules of the Commons in a way that forces a vote.
- Emergency Business Statement: The Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, either on Monday or Tuesday at the start of Parliamentary business, makes a statement changing the business for the day, pulling the last day of debate and the votes.
- The Government Minister winding up the debate ‘talks out’ the votes: It is arguable that the business motion for the debate has been drafted in such a way that would allow a Minister to ‘talk out’ their own debate. Under section 10 (c), only a Minister may move a closure, which basically means if they are still standing and speaking at the end of the debate, the votes won’t be moved.
An amendment to the Government motion is passed, politically changing the deal
In the table below I’ve listed the 13 amendments tabled so far by MPs. Of these, six will be selected by the Speaker – it’s not certain which he will select, but some have more chance than others – my current thinking is amendments (a) (b) (i) (k) (l) and (m). It’s unlikely that the official Labour one would succeed – amendment (a) – as Tory MPs and the DUP won’t support it, and of the others:
Hilary Benn – amendment (i) explicitly rejects the UK leaving on no deal, and demands the Government move straight to the final Parliamentary debate under the terms of the EU Withdrawal Act. This is the one which the Government lost a vote on last week, which basically means that Parliament is able to direct Government politically which course of action it should pursue. Whilst this isn’t binding under legislation, and the Government could still theoretically leave under no deal terms, it would be politically challenging to do so.
Backbench Conservative – there are three motions which seek to do similar things (b) (e) and (f) – force the Government to place a time limit on the NI backstop, or to reject the backstop. Even if this passed, the UK Government would have to seek agreement from the EU.
Liberal Democrat – amendment (l) calls on the UK Government to hold a second referendum. This would require primary legislation, and even if passed swiftly, such a referendum could not be held within the next 5 months because of the time needed to organise.
No amendments are passed, but the main Government motion fails as well
In this scenario, all votes fail, and the Commons fails to both pass the Withdrawal Agreement, and direct the Government what to do next. This would be hugely damaging to the Prime Minister. Under the EU Withdrawal Act the Government has 21 days to make a statement to the Commons setting out what it plans to do next, and within seven days of that statement the Government must bring forward a motion for the House to consider. This motion can now be amended following the Government’s defeat next week, and the Commons would be able to express a view on what to do next, though this would not be binding on the Government.
What could happen next?
If the Government motion fails, and all amendments fail, then there are several things that might happen:
- May could face a vote of no confidence in the Commons. Kier Starmer has said that Labour would table a vote, but with the DUP stating that they would support the Conservatives in such a vote, this is unlikely to succeed. If the Government did fall, there would be 14 days for another Government to win a vote of confidence in the Commons, or the country will have a General Election.
- Conservative MPs put in 48 letters, and the party has to have a confidence vote in the Prime Minister. Conservative MPs put in 48 letters, and the party has to have a confidence vote in the PM. If 48 letters go in, this would require a swift vote of confidence, where the PM must win more than 50 per cent of the votes of the 315 Conservative MPs. If the Prime Minister lost, the party then has to elect a new leader. ConservativeHome has called for MPs to take this option, but the reality of doing so in such a short timescale is incredibly fraught given we are just over three months from leaving the EU on no deal terms. Even under an accelerated timescale for the party to elect a leader, this would mean almost no time for the new Prime Minister to renegotiate with the EU unless Article 50 was extended.
- Labour tries to table a censure motion about May – this is effectively a personal vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister, which is what happened recently to Chris Grayling. This would potentially allow Tory MPs to vote against the May without bringing down the Government. However the Government is under no obligation to provide time for an Opposition Day before Christmas, so this is unlikely to happen.
- The Prime Minister goes to negotiate with Brussels and brings back an amended deal. This would then require the Government to win a vote on its renegotiated deal, using the procedure outlined above.
If no negotiated deal can pass through the Commons the UK will leave the EU without a deal.
My best guess is that the Government will pull the vote on Tuesday, thus avoiding a humiliating defeat, and ‘kick the can down the road’ once again. However this will open up the chances of a challenge to the PM herself, particularly if the EU does not look like changing the Withdrawal Agreement.
If the Prime Minister doesn’t pull the vote, then I think it likely that none of the amendments or the main motion will pass, with a significant defeat by between 100 and 200 votes on the Government’s deal. She will then be forced to return to Brussels and try and renegotiate, whilst facing the possibility of no-confidence motions in the Government or in herself as Leader of the Conservative Party. Such a renegotiation would only satisfy Conservative MPs if the Prime Minister can remove either the backstop, or insert a time limit on it.
Whatever happens over the next few days, these are high stakes indeed for the future of the PM, the Conservative Party and the United Kingdom.
List of amendments before the House – Green means likely to be selected by the Speaker for voting, yellow means a reasonable chance of being selected.