On 29 January 2019, MPs within the House of Commons debated the Prime Minister’s neutral motion designed to allow discussion of the next steps on Brexit, with MPs tabling amendments. The crunch time began at 7pm when MPs began voting on the various amendments. The speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow MP, selected seven amendments to be debated and which could be put to the vote.

Only two of the seven amendments put forward by MPs were successful:

  1. The amendment put forward by the Labour party instructed the Government to rule out a “disastrous No Deal” scenario and would have allowed Parliament to consider – and vote on – options including: (i) an alternative Brexit deal involving Labour’s plan for a permanent customs union with the EU and a version of the EU’s Single Market; and (ii) legislating to hold a public vote on either a deal or a proposition that has MPs’ support. This amendment was defeated – 296 votes for; 327 votes against.
  2. The amendment put forward by the Scottish National Party called for an extension of Article 50, the ruling out of a no deal Brexit and emphasing the role of the UK nations in the Brexit process. This amendment was defeated – 39 votes for; 327 votes against.
  3. The amendment put forward by Conservative MP Dominic Grieve sought time for MPs to discuss a range of alternatives to the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan on six full days in the House of Commons before 26 March 2019. The amendment was defeated – 301 votes for; 321 votes against.
  4. The amendment put forward by Labour MP Yvette Cooper attempted to rule out the UK leaving the EU without a formal deal by allowing Parliament time to pass a new law. The Bill to bring the new law would have required the Prime Minister to seek to postpone Brexit day (29 March 2019) until 31 December 2019, if MPs did not approve her deal by 26 February 2019. The amendment was defeated – 298 votes for; 321 votes against.
  5. The amendment put forward by Labour MP Rachel Reeves’ required the Government to ask the EU to postpone Brexit day (without specifying for how long). This amendment was defeated – 290 votes for; 322 votes against.
  6. The amendment put forward by Conservative MP Caroline Spelman and Labour MP Jack Dromey sought to prevent a no-deal Brexit by adding to the Prime Minister’s motion that Parliament “rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework for the Future Relationship”. This amendment was approved – 318 votes for; 310 votes against. However, the vote is not legally binding – meaning it showed the view of the House of Commons, but did not change the exit date of 29 March 2019.
  7. The amendment put forward by Conservative MP Sir Graham Brady called on Parliament to require the backstop to be replaced with “alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border” but would otherwise support the Prime Minister’s deal. This amendment was approved – 317 votes for; 301 votes against.

The votes do not in any way change the fact that the UK will leave the EU by automatic operation of law on 29 March 2019. This can only be changed by: (a) an Act of Parliament amending the ‘exit date’ in the European Union Withdrawal Act 2018; and (b) unanimous agreement from the EU to extend Article 50.

After the votes the Prime Minister told MPs that there was now a “substantial and sustainable” majority in the Commons for leaving the EU with a deal, but admitted renegotiation “will not be easy”. She added that she expected to bring back a ‘revised’ deal by 13 February 2019, with a secondary meaningful vote to be held in the House of Commons on 14 February 2019. Moreover, she said that if no new deal is reached by 13 February, she will make a statement to Parliament that day and table an amendable motion for debate the following day, re-opening discussions on how to move forward with Brexit.

Sir Graham Brady MP stated after his amendment was approved, “The Prime Minister now will go back to Brussels to seek some material changes to the Withdrawal Agreement but she’ll do it with tangible proof that there is a majority for an outcome in the House of Commons.”

President of the European Council Donald Tusk stated after the votes: “The Withdrawal Agreement is and remains the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. The backstop is part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for re-negotiation. The December European Council Conclusions are very clear on this point. If the UK’s intentions for the future partnership were to evolve, the EU would be prepared to reconsider its offer and adjust the content and the level of ambition of the political declaration, whilst respecting its established principles. Should there be a UK reasoned request for an extension, the EU27 would stand ready to consider it and decide by unanimity. The EU27 will adopt this decision, taking into account the reasons for and duration of a possible extension, as well as the need to ensure the functioning of the EU institutions. We will continue our preparations for all outcomes, including a no-deal scenario. We will also continue the EU´s process of ratification of the agreement reached with the UK government.”

The coming days suggest further political drama with the Prime Minister seeking to secure legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, which EU leaders insist is closed.

In terms of Brexit planning for financial institutions, the message must remain the same as before – keep a close eye on the politics, hope for an implementation period but continue planning for the worst case scenario of a no deal Brexit.