The House of Commons library has published a useful briefing paper ‘a user’s guide to the meaningful vote’. Here are some of the key takeaways.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (the ‘Withdrawal Act’) sets out a scheme whereby the Government must secure explicit Parliamentary approval of the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on the future relationship.
If Parliament rejects a deal, or if the negotiators do not reach a deal then the Withdrawal Act also allows for Parliament to scrutinise and express a view on the Government’s proposed course of action.
The ‘meaningful vote’ is the House of Commons’ vote on a Government motion to approve the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on the future relationship. This is a vote that is legally guaranteed by the Withdrawal Act. The Government cannot ratify the Withdrawal Agreement if the Commons does not pass this motion.
Parliament will take some time to consider the ‘deal’ that has been reached. We do not know how much time Parliament will have for scrutiny of the deal by Committees because the Business of the House is determined by Business Motions. While these are introduced by the Government, the House is ultimately responsible for deciding when its business takes place.
The Commons will be expected to debate a motion to be moved by a Minister of the Crown (a Cabinet Minister) which approves both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration. It would not be enough for the motion simply to approve the Withdrawal Agreement on its own.
We don’t know at the moment when the debate will be moved by a Minister of the Crown.
We do not know how long the debate might take. The House of Commons Procedure Committee in its report on motions under the Withdrawal Act recommended at least five days. The Commons debated a motion on accession to the European Communities for five days in October 1971 and a further day on an Opposition Day motion in 1972.
One of the outstanding ‘unknowns’ in this process is exactly how the House of Commons will go about voting on the motion. Normally substantive motions in the Commons are amendable. This means MPs could vote to change the motion the Government brings forward. The Government has expressed concerns that if the Commons votes to amend its original motion, this could create legal uncertainty about whether the Commons had approved the two documents. If amendments are taken before any vote on the original government motion, they say, this would prevent the Commons from having the chance to express a clear view. The House of Commons Procedure Committee has suggested that the Government should bring forward a bespoke Business of the House motion to set out how the debate and any votes on the motion and possible amendments should be organised.
Before the Government can move to the next stage, the Lords will debate the motion but will not vote on it.
The motion is approved by the Commons
If the Commons passes the motion to approve the deal, the Government will be expected to bring forward the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. This legislation, which would change domestic law so that it can implement the Withdrawal Agreement, must get Royal Assent before Article 50 expires, otherwise the UK cannot ratify the Withdrawal Agreement treaty. The Bill will require the explicit consent of the House of Lords.
The motion is not approved by the Commons
The Withdrawal Act provides that the Government must make a statement about how it ‘proposes to proceed’. A Minister must then move a motion in neutral terms in the Commons to the effect that the House ‘has considered’ the statement. This motion has no direct legal effects. However, the context of the Commons debate, and any votes taken, may influence the Government’s subsequent course of action. Although foreign affairs and treaty-making is normally the preserve of the Government under the Royal Prerogative, it holds that position by virtue of commanding the confidence of the House of Commons.
An example of the Commons rejecting the motion
If the Commons were (hypothetically) to reject a deal on 27 November 2018, a Minister of the Crown would be obliged to make a statement under s. 13(4) of the Withdrawal Act no later than 18 December 2018 (21 calendar days thereafter). The Government then has seven sitting days within which to move motions in both Houses on the statement. Parliament is expected to rise for the Christmas recess on 20 December 2018, returning on 7 January 2019. If a statement were to be made on 18 December 2018 (given the current Parliamentary recess dates) a Minister of the Crown would be obliged to move a motion on the statement no later than 10 January 2019. A Minister of the Crown could make a statement sooner than 21 days after a deal was rejected by the Commons, and/or table a motion on the statement sooner than seven sitting days after making it. In that scenario, Parliament could express a view on the Government’s next steps before the Christmas recess.