Before the brexit vote in the house of commons: clear the stage for the showdown

Dispute over rules of procedure opens debate on withdrawal treaty with EU. Speaker of Parliament Bercow faces massive criticism.

John Bercow (right) faces fierce accusations from his own party colleagues Photo: ap

In the British House of Commons on Wednesday began the crucial debate on whether Britain will leave the European Union on March 29, 2019, with or without an agreement with the EU. The Brexit treaty negotiated between the United Kingdom and the EU in November has been submitted to parliamentarians for ratification, but it has so far met with such widespread rejection in British politics that the government postponed the vote on it, which was actually due in December, to Jan. 15 at short notice.

Since nothing seems to have changed in this mood, the EU rejects any renegotiation and the British government has ruled out any further postponement of the vote, May’s Brexit deal is likely to be dead with the vote next Tuesday. All opposition parties reject May’s deal. They enjoy growing sympathy for the option of a second Brexit referendum to overturn the EU exit, but together they do not have a majority, and that would not be possible before March 29 anyway.

Within the ruling Conservatives, a strong hardline faction around figures such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg opposes May’s deal for opposing reasons: They want a "clear" Brexit without a possible indefinite stay of the country in the EU customs union, as promised by the deal. They had mobilized the majority of backbenchers in their failed vote of no confidence against Theresa May shortly before Christmas and also know that the Northern Ireland Protestants of the DUP are on their side.

No majority for nothing

So there is a clear majority in Parliament against May’s deal – but not yet a majority for anything else. As long as that remains the case, Britain will still leave the EU on March 29, 2019 – without a deal. This "disorderly" so-called no-deal Brexit is meeting daily warnings about its allegedly dramatic consequences. The British government has made it a top priority to prepare for it so that the consequences – for example, long queues at ports – are cushioned.

Leaving on March 29, with or without a deal, is in line with the law passed by Parliament in June, which states that on that date the validity of EU treaties in the UK will irrevocably expire. Parliament Speaker John Bercow confirmed Wednesday at the start of the debate that this could only be overturned by another bill – which is not possible in the time remaining.

There is a clear majority against May’s deal – but no majority for anything else

In theory, the British government could apply to the EU for a delay in Brexit in response to a parliamentary defeat. This is considered conceivable, but would have to be unanimously approved by all other 27 EU members. There is agreement in the EU that a postponement of the exit date would only be possible for a short time – i.e., at the latest until the European elections in May, in which the U.K. would otherwise have to participate – and to achieve a clearly defined goal. But if British politicians could agree on a clearly defined goal, that would not be necessary.

Dispute over the legal meaning of the word "henceforth"

There is a small but influential group of MPs and ex-ministers in the Conservatives who nevertheless want to prevent a no-deal Brexit at all costs. Led by backbencher Dominic Grieve, a former chairman of the parliamentary intelligence committee with relevant experience, they have been waging a kind of parliamentary guerrilla tactic against their own government since Tuesday. On Tuesday night, with the support of the Labour-led opposition, they pushed through an amendment to the Finance Bill by 303 votes to 296, which puts the appropriation of funds to prepare for a no-deal Brexit under parliamentary scrutiny.

It was a symbolic move, according to experts, but buoyed by it, Grieve on Wednesday requested a change to the rules of procedure for the upcoming Brexit debate to include a motion that would require the government to present new proposals in the form of a bill within 3 days – rather than 21, as previously stipulated – in the event of defeat.

Although the government alone is allowed to set rules of procedure for debates, Parliament Speaker Bercow accepted Grieve’s motion for a vote that afternoon – and refused to confirm that he had previously sought confirmation of the legality of that decision. This caused a lot of turbulence; many speakers indirectly accused Bercow of breaking the law. Among other things, there was a dispute about the legal meaning of the word "henceforth" in Parliament’s rules.

In the end, Grieve’s motion passed by a vote of 308 to 297 before the debate proper began several hours late.