Today’s events in parliament revolved around the ‘meaningful vote’ amendment brought forward by the Honourable Member for Beaconsfield, Dominic Grieve. Last Tuesday, the government avoided defeat on all of the Lords amendments to the Brexit Withdrawal Bill, but only after some last-minute negotiations on the Grieve ‘meaningful vote’ amendment. May gave “personal assurances” that parliament would get such a vote after the negotiations are completed.
After another round of ‘ping-pong’ between the Commons and the Lords (bear with me) means that the amendment had to return to the lower House to be debated again.
So why should we care? Well, although this stuff is complex, arcane and highly technical, the final shape of the Withdrawal Bill will determine the route we choose to take out of the European Union.
The Withdrawal Bill was designed to extricate the UK from European law by repealing the 1972 European Communities Act. That, in essence, is Brexit: law will be made in this country with no oversight by European institutions. These amendments are important because the degree to which they are absorbed into the set of government negotiating positions gives us a clearer idea about the first stage of Brexit, whether that entails participation in the Customs Union, or a customs union, a single market, or the Single Market, or none of the above.
Some of the amendments initially tabled by the Lords placed major conditions on the form of that unravelling effectively ‘tying the hands’ of government negotiators, e.g. Lord ‘Britain must come to heel’ Kerr’s amendment asked that the government make a statement to parliament outlining the steps it would take to negotiate the membership of a customs union with the EU, before the Bill could pass. The government came back with a softened alternative for negotiation of a ‘customs arrangement’ with the EU.
David Davis started proceedings by emphasising the degree to which parliamentary oversight might hamper the negotiations and made the parallel claim that negotiations must be carried out in the spirit of “the result of the referendum.” As a compromise, he made a written statement confirming that MPs would have an opportunity to hold the government to account (roughly mirroring the ‘personal assurances’ compromise that emerged last week).
Grieve basically accepted both elements of the Davis statement, both on the degree to which the vote would be ‘meaningful’ and the pragmatic concerns about negotiation tactics, “Having finally obtained, I have to say with a little bit more difficulty than I would have wished, the obvious acknowledgement of the sovereignty of this place.” He added: “I have prepared to accept the government’s difficulty and support it.”
Key rebels, bar the effervescent Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke, accepted that position, including vocal Remainer Nicky Morgan.
Grieve’s concessions basically diffused the debate, turning it from burning issue into … damp squib. Appalling mixed metaphors aside, most of the proceedings was taken up with very dull perorations in the House on Brexit as national disaster, catastrophe and apocalypse all rolled into one. Anna Soubry unsurprisingly said she would vote for the amendment because ‘the 48%’ have been silenced and abused. And on the other side, various hard Brexiteers got up to smear any deviation from the government line as a ‘betrayal of the 52%’.
The amendment was defeated by 319 votes to 303.
Another week; another May fudge saves her from defeat.