Explained: The 'meaningful vote' amendment and what it could for Theresa May and Brexit

Peter Macdiarmid / GettyTory MP and former Attorney General Dominic Grieve
  • On Wednesday a Brexit showdown will take place in the House of Commons when MPs vote on the so-called “meaningful vote” amendment.
  • The outcome of the vote will have huge ramifications for Britain’s exit from the European Union.
  • A government defeat would give MPs the power to veto a no-deal Brexit.
  • Conservative rebels – including Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan – are confident of victory. However, so is Theresa May’s government.
  • The vote will take place on Wednesday evening. Here’s everything you need to know.

LONDON – On Wednesday, Members of Parliament will take part in of the most important votes British politics has seen for quite some time – and one that has huge ramifications for Brexit.

The wrangle over the EU Withdrawal Bill – Theresa May’s legislation for implementing Brexit – will culminate with a crucial vote on the so-called “meaningful vote” amendment, led by Conservative MP Dominic Grieve.

This amendment has been the subject of a big game of parliamentary “ping-pong” in recent weeks, passed back and forth between MPs in the House of Commons and peers in the House of Lords, in a struggle to shape Brexit.

The final vote will take place on Wednesday afternoon, with MPs expected to cast their votes at around 14:30 (BST) at the earliest. Here’s all you need to know about the amendment and why it matters.

What is the meaningful vote amendment?

The “meaningful vote” has become a buzzphrase in Westminster in recent months. Put simply, it means handing MPs a binding vote on any Brexit deal the prime minister brings back from Brussels later this year.

In practice, this means that May would only be able to sign off a Brexit deal once given parliamentary approval. If MPs vote down her deal, they will get to decide what the next course of action should be. That could include requesting an extension to the Article 50 negotiating process, or putting the issue to another nationwide referendum.

Labour and other opposition MPs support a meaningful vote as they believe it rules out the possibility of Britain leaving the EU without a deal. Most MPs would block a no deal Brexit, partly because virtually all evidence suggests it would be catastrophic for the economy. Government analysis found that UK GDP could drop by as much as 8% after Brexit in a no deal scenario. A no deal would also unleash a myriad of other problems, not least a hard border on the island of Ireland, which May has said will not happen on her watch.

The government does not want MPs to have a meaningful vote because they claim it would undermine the prime minister’s negotiating position. Some pro-Brexit MPs claim the amendment is simply as an attempt to thwart Brexit.

Anna Soubry Nicky MorganChris J Ratcliffe/Getty ImagesConservative ‘rebels’ Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan.

So how did we get here?

Last week, MPs had a vote on the very same issue which they are voting again today.

However, a meeting held prior to last week’s vote, between Prime Minister May and pro-EU Conservative MPs prepared to rebel, had appeared to produce a compromise. This meant the amendment wasn’t passed.

Conservative rebels claimed they had been personally assured by May that MPs would be given the power to veto a “no deal” Brexit if the prime minister didn’t have a withdrawal agreement by February. That persuaded enough potential Tory rebels to back down, sparing May a major and embarrassing defeat.

However, in an afternoon of drama last Thursday, Tory MP Grieve accused May of breaching the terms of the verbal agreement, by changing the amendment at the last minute.

The text of the amendment did not give MPs an explicit veto if no final Brexit deal is reached with the EU. Instead, it merely gave them a vote on an unamendable statement, meaning their vote would have no real effect.

Grieve called the move a “slap in the face” while Soubry, his Conservative colleague in the House of Commons, accused the government of breaking promises made to the rebels. It didn’t finish there, though.

On Monday the House of Lords voted for a new amendment based on what the Conservative rebels believed they had been promised by May last week: a no-deal veto. The new amendment passed with a majority of 119.

This Brexit tug of war will reach its climax in a House of Commons showdown today when MPs vote on the updated meaningful vote amendment.

Sir Keir StarmerLeon Neal/Getty ImagesShadow Brexit Secretary, Sir Keir Starmer.

Could the government lose?

May’s decision to take on the rebels last week was a bold one. It’s difficult to see why the prime minister did it if she didn’t believe the government had the numbers to defeat the amendment when it returned to the Commons.

Indeed, Conservative party whips – Tory MPs responsible for making sure their colleagues vote with the government – are “convinced they won’t be defeated,” a source close to the whips told BI on Tuesday evening.

The Labour Party leadership has instructed his MPs to vote for the amendment.

“Last week, Theresa May broke the promise she made to her own backbenchers and forced this issue back on the table,” Shadow Brexit Secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, said ahead of the vote.

“This vote is not about stopping Brexit or tying the hands of UK negotiators. It is about making sure Parliament has a truly meaningful say on the terms of the final Brexit deal. It is about protecting jobs and the economy from the risk of UK crashing out of the EU without a deal.”

However, Conservative whips have reportedly spent this week trying to persuade Labour MPs from Leave-voting constituencies to defy Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and support with the government. There was concern within Labour on Tuesday night that a growing MPs were preparing to vote with a government.

May could be playing with fire, though. The events of last week infuriated the rebels she had hoped to placate, and Grieve said last week that he and others would be prepared to bring down the government over this issue.

… if the government doesn’t find a way of changing their position, then we will win.

“We could collapse the government,” the MP for Beaconsfield told BBC One’s Sunday Politics.

“And I can assure you I wake up at 2 am in a cold sweat thinking about the problems that we have put on our shoulders. The difficulty is that the Brexit process is inherently risky.”

A senior Conservative MP who is planning to rebel on Wednesday told BI that they were confident of defeating the government.

“Discussions are ongoing but if the government doesn’t find a way of changing their position, then we will win,” they said.”We have the numbers. People are fed up. You can’t approve a motion that is not amendable.”

Both the government and Conservative rebels are confident of victory. Only one side can be right.

What does this all mean for Brexit?

A defeat for the government would, by all intents and purposes, kill off a “no deal” Brexit. That is because there is simply no way a majority of MPs would vote for Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal in place.

This is important because it means any British threat to walk away from Brexit negotiations won’t be taken even remotely seriously in Brussels, negating May’s “no deal is better than a bad deal” catchphrase. This also reduces Britain’s leverage in negotiations, as it can no longer make a serious threat to walk out of talks.

Some Brexiteers fear that if passed, this amendment could prolong Britain’s departure from the EU, as Brussels would have less of an incentive to negotiate quickly with Britain with a cliff-edge Brexit off the table.

“This would give the EU Commission a clear incentive to delay the negotiations or present unacceptable propositions until the deadline has passed and the Government is stripped of its ability to negotiate freely,” Brexit Secretary David Davis wrote earlier this year.

If the government wins, Prime Minister May will have the power, in theory, to bypass MPs and take Britain out of the EU with no deal. It’s doubtful that she’d do this, given that most analysis says this would destroy jobs, bring certain industries to a standstill, and undo the Good Friday Agreement by creating a hard Irish border.

What the outcome of this vote will determine is what sort of role Parliament will play in the biggest issue facing Britain in decades – in that sense, it goes right to the heart of Britain’s constitution. It’s a very big deal.

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