It’s great MPs have taken control. Now how to use it?

by Hugo Dixon | 26.03.2019

It’s great MPs have taken control of the Brexit process from a stubborn prime minister who has run out of ideas. Now they must use it wisely.

The government’s churlish response to yesterday’s defeat by 329 votes to 302 – describing it as a “dangerous, unpredictable precedent” – shows its contemptuous attitude to Parliament. But as MPs prepare to debate Plan Bs tomorrow, it did make one good point: “Any options considered must be deliverable in negotiations with the EU.”

There will now be an intensive discussion among key MPs about what exactly happens tomorrow. One priority will be to prevent any “unicorns” being selected for debate. Otherwise, MPs will waste yet more precious time. Oliver Letwin, the Conservative MP who promoted last night’s amendment, is alive to this risk – so that’s good news.

Another priority will be not to muddle up Brexit options with the People’s Vote. A new referendum is not a Brexit option. Rather, whatever MPs think is the least bad Brexit option – whether the prime minister’s deal, a softer Brexit, crashing out with no deal or just cancelling Brexit – should be put to the people.

So when MPs vote tomorrow they mustn’t compare apples and oranges. It is encouraging that Labour seems to accept this argument. Keir Starmer, the party’s Brexit spokesperson, said: “It would be possible to say that, whatever deal there was at the end of that exercise, it ought to be subject to the lock or safeguard of some sort of confirmation vote.”

Yet another issue will be to figure out how MPs will reach consensus. Although time is short, it’s important that the process isn’t rushed – and that we end up determining the country’s fate in a poorly thought through multiple choice speed-dating process.

Again many MPs, including Starmer, were alive to the risk in yesterday’s debate. It now seems likely that MPs won’t just discuss Plan Bs tomorrow. They will grab at least another day next week to continue the process.

There will also be discussion over what voting system to use. To most observers, this will look mind-numbingly complex. But it’s vital that the process doesn’t result in a stitch-up that favours one option over others.

Then there’s the question of whether the government will act on whatever MPs agree on. Theresa May hinted yesterday that she would refuse to implement anything that contravenes the Tory party manifesto from 2017, such as staying in the EU’s customs union and/or single market. She also hinted she would say no to a People’s Vote – even though her manifesto didn’t give a view on that at all.

If the prime minister really refuses to do what MPs tell her to do, Parliament will have to take more extreme measures. The three ministers who resigned yesterday to vote for Letwin’s amendment are just an advance guard. If she continues to stubbornly resist the will of Parliament, anything is possible including emergency legislation, a coup to get rid of her and a general election – as discussed in yesterday’s Cabinet.

But while this parliamentary drama unfolds, MPs must not forget the most important thing. The clock is ticking madly towards a new cliff edge on April 12. Last night they failed by three votes to back an amendment by Labour’s Margaret Beckett that was designed to prevent Parliament doing this by forcing a vote by next Friday on securing extra time. They will have to return to the issue very soon.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

2 Responses to “It’s great MPs have taken control. Now how to use it?”

  • The only way to stop Brexit if for the EU to take its instructions direct from parliament, as May will never do it voluntarily

  • Whatever Downing Street may say, it isn’t a foregone conclusion that, if May resigns on the ground that she cannot and will not implement what the Commons may have agreed on because it breaches her red lines or the Tory manifiesto, there must be a general election. That would be constitutionally wrong if there is some other MP able to command the support of a majority in the Commons. It would in theory be perfectly possible for e.g. Oliver Letwin to put himself forward as the head of a national government that would see the UK get to the end of the Brexit process, by implementing the favoured option, or of course by revoking the Art 50 notice, if a referendum and/or Parliament so approved.

    I am in no position to say whether this is do-able in practice, given the variety of people currently with him, but this posiblility should not be overlooked.