What is meant by a ‘meaningful vote’?
Under the EU Withdrawal Act 2018, the UK House of Commons is legally entitled to have a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement reached by UK and EU negotiators, and its accompanying political declaration on the framework for a future relationship between the UK and EU.
Since October 2016, the UK government had indicated that UK Members of Parliament (MPs) would have a vote on any future EU withdrawal deal, however it was unclear when or if this vote would take place. When the EU Withdrawal Bill was first introduced to the House of Commons in July 2017, it did not contain any legal commitment to guarantee such a vote.
The legislative process for a ‘meaningful vote’ subsequently began in December 2017, when backbench Conservative MP and former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, proposed an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. His amendment, which was approved by MPs, gave the UK Parliament a legal guarantee of a vote on any Withdrawal Agreement reached between the EU and UK. However, it did not specify when this vote would take place.
Further amendments were then made to the EU Withdrawal Bill during parliamentary debates, with Section 13(1)(b) of the EU Withdrawal Act ultimately setting out that the UK government cannot ratify the Withdrawal Agreement unless “the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement and the framework for the future relationship have been approved by a resolution of the House of Commons on a motion moved by a Minister of the Crown”.
When is the House of Commons set to have a ‘meaningful vote’?
UK MPs were originally set to have a ‘meaningful vote’ on the Withdrawal Agreement on Tuesday, 11 December 2018, however, on 10 December, UK Prime Minister, Theresa May announced that the vote would be postponed until further notice due to continued “widespread and deep concern” over the Northern Ireland backstop. The meaningful vote has been rescheduled to take place on Tuesday, 15 January 2019.
The UK government cannot ratify the Withdrawal Agreement unless it has received the approval of the UK Parliament.
Can the House of Commons make amendments to the Withdrawal Agreement?
MPs can table amendments to the motion on the approval of the Withdrawal Agreement. These will be voted on first before MPs vote on whether or not to approve the Withdrawal Agreement. The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, can accept up to six amendments to be voted on.
Any amendments made by MPs will not be considered legally binding on the UK government, although they are likely to hold political significance.
What happens if the House of Commons approves the Withdrawal Agreement?
If UK MPs vote by simple majority in favour of the withdrawal deal, the motion will pass; the UK government can therefore ratify the Withdrawal Agreement.
The UK Parliament must also pass legislation to ensure the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement into domestic law, which would allow for a transition period, the protection of citizens’ rights, and UK financial settlement payments.
What happens if the House of Commons rejects the Withdrawal Agreement?
Should the House of Commons reject the Withdrawal Agreement, it is very hard to predict what might happen next and several scenarios could arise.
If the agreement is voted down by a narrow margin, there has been speculation that UK Prime Minister, Theresa May could try to request changes from the EU to the current deal, most likely on the political declaration on the framework for a future relationship. However, EU Chief Brexit Negotiator, Michel Barnier has stated that the current agreement is the “only deal possible”.
The second possibility is a second referendum, or ‘People’s Vote’. For a referendum to take place, legislation would need to be introduced and approved by the UK Parliament, a process which took seven months for the 2016 EU referendum. It is also unclear what exactly would be written on the ballot paper should a referendum take place, and how many options voters would be given. In this scenario, it is likely that the UK would need to request an extension of Article 50 in order to allow time to both pass legislation governing a second referendum and hold the referendum itself. Such an extension would require the unanimous agreement of the EU27.
The UK could also end up leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 with no withdrawal deal in place, which is the default position under both Article 50 and in UK law.
If the House of Commons votes down the deal, the EU Withdrawal Act entitles the UK Parliament to vote on a UK government motion outlining what it plans to do next. The UK government must present the motion to the UK Parliament within three sitting days of an unsuccessful meaningful vote. On Tuesday, 4 December 2018, the House of Commons voted to give itself the right to make amendments to such a motion, however like amendments to the meaningful vote these amendments will not be legally binding on the UK government.
Is the Withdrawal Agreement likely to pass in the House of Commons?
It seems likely that it will be difficult for the UK government to get the House of Commons’ approval for the Withdrawal Agreement on Tuesday. Most of the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, are expected to vote against the deal, as are the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the Liberal Democrats. Conservative MPs of the European Research Group (ERG), led by Jacob Rees Mogg, have made it clear they will vote against the deal, although the exact size and influence of the ERG is unknown.
There are 650 MPs in the House of Commons, although the Speaker and his three deputies do not vote. Sinn Féin members, of which there are seven, do not take their seats in Westminster. Therefore, if all remaining 639 MPs vote on Tuesday, the government needs 320 MPs to vote in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement in order for the motion to pass.
Whatever happens, all eyes will be on Westminster next week.