Will MPs have a vote on the final Brexit deal? If you listened to Theresa May speaking at Parliament’s liaison committee yesterday, you may have assumed not.
Asked repeatedly whether there would be a vote in the Commons, the prime minister would only say that MPs would have “ample opportunity to comment on and discuss the aspects of the arrangements that we are putting in place.” So does that mean a vote, or not? Some papers, like the Guardian, have gone for “not.”
That is a reasonable interpretation.
However, the committee themselves were not so sure. “I was surprised that the prime minister was unable to confirm that she would expect Parliament to have a vote on the Brexit agreements,” Liaison Committee chairman Andrew Tyrie said afterwards. Further layers of confusion can be found in comments made by David Davis earlier this month, in which he said it would be “inconceivable” that MPs would not get a vote.
“If the EU Parliament has a vote, it’s inconceivable this House doesn’t, simple as that,”
“If the EU Parliament has a vote, it’s inconceivable this House doesn’t, simple as that,” he said on December 7.
So if that is true, then why was the prime minister so reluctant to give a straight answer to the Liaison Committee?
Well the simplest answer could be that she was reluctant to give a straight answer to anything.
Over the course of almost two hours, MPs struggled to get clear responses on everything from the Single Market, to immigration, to devolution, to a transition deal. At one point, Yvette Cooper resorted to inserting “yes or no” into her questions in a desperate attempt to get a straight answer. It did not work.
Instead the prime minister resorted to a series of tautologous “Brexit means Brexit” type statements. We learned over the course of the session that “negotiations are negotiations,” “I gave the answer I gave” and “you will see what we publish when we publish it.” Compared to these, her comments earlier this month that she would like a “red, white and blue Brexit” look staggeringly informative.
A ‘take it or leave it’ vote
Such is the paucity of information coming out of the UK government about its Brexit plans, observers are forced to read not just between the lines of government statements, but above and below them as well.
Inside parliament, lobby journalists take part in twice daily Q+A’s with the prime minister’s spokespeople, whose expertise in refusing to give a straight answer to questions makes May look like a rank amateur.
Having sat through many of these sessions, I can confirm that the evasion seen in yesterday’s liaison committee appearance yesterday is the default position of May’s government. Her refusal to say whether MPs will get a vote on the final Brexit deal is not necessarily a sign that there won’t be one. It is merely a sign that May is determined to say little beyond her promise to get “the best possible deal” for Britain.
There are good reasons for this reluctance, most importantly the fact that the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU will, for the most part, be out of the prime minister’s hands.
Much of the analysis in the UK press has focused on what May and her government want out of the Brexit negotiations, but in reality they will have little choice but to either accept or reject the deal offered to them by our 27 other EU partners.
With nativist parties on the rise in Europe and a whole series of European elections coming up, our neighbours have little incentive to offer us anything but the most basic of deals. If May is reluctant to spell out her specific Brexit wishlist it could be because she knows how unlikely she is to get it.
So will there be a final parliamentary vote?
My own sense is that David Davis is right and there will almost certainly be a final vote on Brexit. If the Supreme court decide, as is likely, that MPs must be given a vote on triggering Article 50, then it is surely inconceivable that they would not also be given a vote on the final exit deal.
However, those hoping that this will hand MPs the power to push for a ‘softer’ single market style deal will be disappointed.
As Davis also made clear to the Commons earlier this month, any final vote will be merely on the deal put before them by the government. MPs will have a choice of either accepting or rejecting that deal. If they reject it, that won’t mean that Britain stays in the EU or even leaves under better terms.
The two-year window for Article 50 would still apply and Britain would simply fall out of the EU on the hardest of WTO terms. Any final parliamentary vote would be a “take it or leave it” deal. Faced with that, MPs would almost certainly choose to take it.
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