In a parliamentary first for the UK, MPs will take charge of the House of Commons business on Wednesday for a historic debate on the kind of Brexit that could command a majority to try and find a solution to the current deadlock over Britain’s exit from the EU. In a major blow to Prime Minister Theresa May’s authority, MPs voted through the debate earlier this week to seize control of the business of the House away from the government and set a new precedent in order to weigh up alternatives to her twice-defeated EU divorce bill through a set of “indicative” non-binding votes.
May has vehemently declined to commit herself to backing any option thrown up as a result of such a vote as it could prove “undeliverable”.
“I must confess that I am sceptical about such a process of indicative votes. When we have tried this kind of thing in the past, it has produced contradictory outcomes or no outcome at all… No government could give a blank cheque to commit to an outcome without knowing what it is,” she told MPs.
However, she is under mounting pressure from all sides of the House, with her own party demanding her resignation as a price for backing her withdrawal agreement and the Opposition Labour Party accusing her of failure by running down the Brexit clock to leave MPs with very little time to debate options.
In the current scenario, the Commons will be entering an uncharted territory Wednesday when it first debates a business motion put forward by former Conservative Party minister Oliver Letwin, who is being dubbed “Prime Minister for the day” as he is in-charge of setting the course for the debate.
As many as 16 options will be on the table for MPs to thrash out, including revoking Article 50 to reverse Brexit altogether, putting May’s deal to the public for another referendum with an option to remain in the EU, and staying closely aligned with the European economic bloc’s norms as part of a softer Brexit.
At the end of the debate, if the motion is passed by the Commons, Speaker John Bercow will whittle down all the options into an effective shortlist for MPs to vote on.
Such a vote, if it goes ahead, will itself set a new precedent by handing out ballot papers to MPs to mark their preferred choice in a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ format rather than the usual way of registering their verbal votes with parliamentary clerks in the Commons Lobby.
The Speaker will then announce the final count in favour of all options, expected any time after 2100 GMT (0230 IST).
While MPs have demanded a free vote in such a ballot, it remains to be seen if parties will whip their MPs to vote in a certain direction. There is fear of more Cabinet resignations if May attempts such a parliamentary whip.
“MPs should be free to vote as they see fit. This is bigger than all of us, bigger than the parties; it’s country first,” said former health minister Steve Brine, who resigned on Monday to back the motion that led to Wednesday’s indicative votes move.
The nature of this voting process currently remains undecided as it will be determined during the course of the debate on whether to keep the votes anonymous and also whether to keep some form of preferential system of grading the various choices on the ballot paper.
While the votes are being counted, the House of Commons has another important motion to debate on Wednesday, which is to formally change Brexit Day on its statute from March 29 to April 12. That date has now already effectively been changed in international law after the EU agreed to an extension to the Article 50 mechanism last week, but requires a kind of rubber-stamping by the British Parliament.
The process of MPs keeping control of Commons business is likely to spill over into next week, when they are expected to find ways of implementing any workable solutions thrown up by the indicative votes this week.
Next Monday, the UK’s most-signed online petition calling for Article 50 to be revoked and Brexit to be cancelled is also set for a debate in the Westminster Hall complex of Parliament. The petition, which attracted nearly 6 million votes, received a formal government response as is customary for popular petitions.
“It remains the government’s firm policy not to revoke Article 50. We will honour the outcome of the 2016 referendum and work to deliver an exit which benefits everyone, whether they voted to Leave or to Remain,” the UK Department for Exiting the EU statement read.
Any petition which gathers 100,000 signatures or more is also debated by MPs, which will take place next week. Similar debates will also take place on a petition with over 120,000 signatures calling to hold another EU referendum and one which crossed 140,000 signatures calling for the UK to leave the EU with or without a deal on the original Brexit date of March 29.
The Parliament’s Petitions Committee said it decided to combine the three petitions into one single debate to ensure they were debated as soon as possible “so they would be less likely to be overtaken by events”.
Meanwhile, May will carry on her declared mission of trying to garner enough support for her withdrawal agreement, with its central stumbling block of the Irish backstop clause which Brexiteers fear would keep Britain tied to EU rules even after Brexit.
The EU has given May until April 12 to propose a different way forward if her divorce bill does not clear the UK Parliament hurdle.