Reflections on Recent Parliamentary Votes: Back to the Future for Theresa May?

Reflections on Recent Parliamentary Votes: Back to the Future for Theresa May?

Alex De Ruyter

The Centre for Brexit Studies was established at Birmingham City University in February 2017, in order to provide a platform for academics and practitioners to come together and explore the likely impact of Brexit, with a focus on the West Midlands. The Centre serves as a bipartisan platform to promote engagement with both “leave” and “remain” perspectives and has been particularly active in gauging public sentiment in the region via regular outreach events. Since then, its profile has steadily grown in the national and international media, and is rapidly developing a reputation as a vehicle for business, policy and community groups to be informed and engaged with issues pertaining to Brexit. Current research has examined issues relating to the automotive industry supply chain, developing new measures of regional economic performance and understanding motivating factors for why people voted the way they did in the 2016 referendum.

In turning my thoughts to the current protracted situation regarding the UK Government attempting to reach agreement with the EU on leaving, sometimes it can seem that Parliament has an inflated sense of its own importance. In all of the debates around yesterday’s vote, the focus was overwhelmingly on what “we” (meaning, of course, the House of Commons, legislating on behalf of the UK) want. Yet whether the UK leaves with a Withdrawal Agreement in place is as much in the hands of the EU as it is in the UK. This appears to be a fact that is often forgotten: in addition to the UK requesting such a thing, the other 27 members of the EU would need to unanimously agree to extend Article 50 if that is what parliament wants. Similarly, any Withdrawal Agreement needs to be ratified by the European Parliament as well as the House of Commons: push too hard and what at the moment appears to be a technicality might well become a hurdle that needs to be overcome.

To recap, on Tuesday January 29th the House of Commons voted on a total of seven amendments to the Government’s “neutral motion” on Brexit. Of these, only two were passed: one of which rejected leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement. As that vote was non-binding and didn’t specify a course of action to avoid that eventuality, it has about as much force as Parliament voting against the law of gravity. After all, voting to “reject” leaving without a deal is meaningless unless accompanied by concrete actions to try and put that in place. It is worth considering how this might happen:

  • The only certain way for the UK to unilaterally avoid leaving the EU without any agreement is for Parliament to vote to rescind Article 50 (the “nuclear option”). This does not (and cannot, per the Court of Justice of the EU’s ruling on the matter) mean a tactical suspension: it must be “unequivocal and unconditional”. Crucially, for this to happen a vote would need to be scheduled (in all probability, this would probably mean a degree of acquiescence from the executive).
  • Vote to extend Article 50. This would require the unanimous agreement of the rest of the EU member states. It is not something that Parliament can mandate.
  • Vote in favour of a concrete Withdrawal Agreement. Once again, this would need to be passed in the European Council (via a Qualified Majority Vote) and by the European Parliament.

In light of clear parliamentary opposition to leaving the EU without some form of agreement (the so-called “no deal” scenario), it came as a surprise to many that Commons rejected both the Grieve amendment and the Cooper-Boles amendment. The latter was particularly significant as it would have allocated Parliament time to bring in a law to require the Government to request an extension to Article 50. Although the EU would have had to (unanimously) agree to the request, it appears likely that they would do so – albeit with preconditions.

As the amendment did not pass, control of parliamentary time remains with the Government and no concrete procedure to prevent a so-called “no deal” scenario is in place. The only other amendment to be passed was that proposed by Sir Graham Brady. This was tactically supported by the Government and effectively gives the Prime Minister a mandate to return to Brussels to renegotiate the so-called ‘backstop’ arrangements. The official line from the EU is that the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation, although clarifications (including those with legal force) are still possible.

In private, many believe that there remains a degree of wiggle room to adjust elements of the Withdrawal Agreement, although we should not underestimate neither how difficult this is likely to prove, nor the amount of time it will take. There is also apparently a sense that “London needs to come down to Earth” in terms of its demands. Both sides therefore remain committed to their game of ‘chicken’, believing the other will blink first.

This is risky. On the British side, it is unlikely that what is unacceptable now will suddenly be palatable in less than 2 months. True, the inexorable ticking of the clock will undoubtedly bring some MPs into line. Likewise, some in the UK’s Parliament will probably be bought off. However, the fact that the Brady amendment passed, in spite of all of the opposition parties voting against it and a number of Conservative defections should be a salutary reminder to all of us. Parliament is taking a considerably harder line than hitherto anticipated and it would be unwise to underestimate Brexiter strength (at least in terms of their ability to sway the Conservative party).

On the European side, there is a strong commitment to member-state Ireland and a sense that avoiding a hard border is imperative to maintaining peace on the island of Ireland. Many within the EU feel that the organisation is invested in the peace process and that EU membership has proven a crucial component to it. As such, they are loathe to do anything that might risk the emergence of such a border in future, particularly as the UK has already committed to avoiding one.

We thus need to face up to the possibility that a mutually acceptable deal cannot feasibly be crafted. Most people in the UK do not want to leave the EU without any agreement. The EU and its member states also don’t want that. Parliament obviously doesn’t want it (as evidenced by the votes on January 29th). However, on its own that isn’t enough. The UK and EU need to take concrete actions to avoid a ‘no deal’ scenario and, given the asymmetry in terms of both power and costs, the onus is surely on the British side to make additional compromises.


Alex de Ruyter is Director of the Centre for Brexit Studies at Birmingham City University. He is currently researching the likely impact of Brexit on the UK automotive supply chain in addition to exploring working in the “gig economy”. He is a Board member of the Regional Studies Association. He is the author of (with Beverley Nielsen) of Brexit Negotiations After Article 50: Assessing Process, Progress and Impact, Emerald, forthcoming March 2019.