A meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement & future relationship: procedures, procedures



If you cast your mind back to when the EU Withdrawal Bill (now Act) was being debated in Parliament, one of the most contentious issues was whether MPs would get a ‘meaningful vote’ or simply a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ choice between accepting whatever deal Theresa May came back with, or crashing out with no deal. The real battle came to the fore when the Bill came back to the Commons, after the Lords had voted through an amendment which would enable MPs to give a binding direction to the government in the event of a no deal, or if Parliament rejected the deal.

In short, the Government resisted this amendment tooth and nail, but was forced to come up with a compromise amendment, which is what became section 13 - ‘parliamentary approval of the outcome of negotiations with the EU’. This section sets out that the Withdrawal Agreement may only be ratified if Parliament approves it.

The last few weeks has seen the issue of the meaningful vote brought to the fore again and much discussion has been around whether Parliament will be able to table and vote on amendments to the main motion on approval of the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on the Future Relationship.

In October, a letter from the then Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab - together with a government memorandum - suggested that MPs should not be able to vote on amendments before the main motion. Instead, these two documents argued, amendments would only be considered if the main motion was rejected. This did not go down well with some MPs, like Dominic Grieve, who said that the government’s preferred route “quite wrongly closes down debate”. The confusion caused by Raab's letter on the meaningful vote was explored more fully by Jack Simson Caird and is a good explainer of the background to where we are now.

The Procedure Committee - which considers the practice and procedure of the House of Commons - published a report last week on what they think is the appropriate procedure for the ‘meaningful vote’. In the report, they recommend that amendments to the motion are taken first. This is significant. It means that the Commons would have the opportunity to vote on alternative propositions ahead of voting on whether to approve the deal agreed with the EU. The Committee also recommends that there should be a minimum of five full sitting days for the debate on whether Parliament approves the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration on the Future Relationship. They also recommend that on each sitting day for the debate there should be the opportunity to speak to amendments and for a minister to respond to that debate.

Remember that the Government is not under any obligation to accept the Procedure Committee’s recommendations, but rejecting the recommendations may be a fight they don’t wish to pick at this stage. Whatever procedure the government proposes for the meaningful vote, the Committee sets out that the government should publish it five sitting days in advance and that there should be a full day of debate on the procedure - taking place no less than two days before the debate on whether to approve the deal.

Keep in mind that this is only a brief summary of the Procedure Committee’s report. You can read it in full here.