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The meaningful Parliamentary vote
19 Sep, 2018

We have to make sure that it works for us

At present there is nothing to suggest that the Parliamentary vote on the withdrawal agreement will stop Brexit. Former HM Treasury senior civil servant and now London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg looks at what might happen when Parliament votes on Brexit at the end of the negotiations.

Well, there’s always something we can do.” Veteran astronaut George Clooney says this to co-pilot Sandra Bullock in the 2013 film Gravity. Their spacecraft has been destroyed, Clooney and the rest of the crew are dead. Only Bullock has found her way to the escape capsule of another space station. But that is defective. She is about to commit suicide when Clooney appears in a hallucination and gives advice.

The new statutory requirement for a meaningful Parliamentary vote at the end of the negotiations that was won by Dominic Grieve with Labour and Liberal Democrat support could provide an opportunity to stop Brexit; or it might be an irrelevance.

The Government’s assertion that the only alternative to accepting the Government’s deal will be to leave the EU on no terms is nonsense. Parliament of course may decide to do anything (though its votes are not binding on the EU).

Moreover, the vote is on the Withdrawal Agreement, not the Framework for Future Relations, though it should be possible for MPs to bring that into the debate. It is only the Framework that really matters. It will be important for the Opposition parties to make sure that the Framework for Future Relations is sufficiently concrete to enable voters to understand what Brexit means.

Let’s start by reviewing the options; then in the next post we can look at how we should spend the next few months to bring about the desired result. The Institute for Government has a useful full guide.


Accept the Government’s Deal

Brexit on the agreed terms. Game over.

Change the details of the Deal

Parliament could send the Government back to negotiate some more on detailed specifics (this is Labour’s stated next step). The EU would be going through its own approval process, probably involving member states. Whether they could be persuaded to reopen the negotiation at that point for trivia must be in doubt.

Change the fundamentals of the Deal

It is hard to see that the EU would agree to a fundamentally different Withdrawal Agreement. However, Parliament could try to change the Future Framework, if it did so in line with one of the options that the EU has acknowledged, eg Norway Plus.

Realistically, the time to do that was December 2017 or July 2018 – when votes that would have kept the UK in the Single Market and the Customs Union failed, usually by large margins as Labour abstained.

Leave the EU with no Deal

Would be an option within the competence of Parliament because it does not require EU agreement.

Stop Brexit

Parliament could stop Brexit by requiring the Government to withdraw the Article 50 notification. In law it could do that without further public consultation. In political reality that would lead to a political crisis in the country on a scale we have not yet seen as Leave voters felt cheated of their referendum victory. This outcome, although it has been many Remainers’ desire since 24 June 2016, would be a disaster for the country.

Set up a referendum on the terms

Parliament could set up a referendum on the terms with the option to Remain. There would be enough time - just. But it would be better to set the referendum up now, rather than wait. Parliament could mandate the government to ask the EU to extend the Article 50 notification period to allow the referendum to take place.

How might the Opposition persuade enough Conservative MPs to vote for a referendum? Well, some Conservatives are Remainers and would wish to rebel if they thought they would win. Some will wish their party to share the blame for Brexit with the electorate. Some will see a referendum as a better alternative than a Corbyn government.

Defeat the Government without providing an alternative plan

If the Government lost its key policy then it might no longer have the confidence of Parliament. Unless there was an obvious government that could command a majority there might need to be a general election (Labour’s preferred way ahead). But the Fixed Term Parliaments Act imposes procedural hurdles which might not be overcome.

There are three more fundamental problems which mean that a general election would not actually resolve the issues facing the country:

  • Brexit cuts across party lines. Unless the parties had been re-aligned on a Remain/ Brexit axis, there would just be a new government leading a party that was divided on the core issue, facing a Parliament that was disciplined on one set of issues (traditional party politics) and differently divided on the core issue (Brexit);
  • in the real world none of the Brexits promised in 2016 is deliverable. Cake is off the menu. So to even begin to be useful a general election would require the two main parties to be more honest with the electorate than they have so far been; and
  • in spite of two subsequent general elections, the 2016 referendum would still be the definitive political statement on Brexit.

So a general election would change the personnel, but not the future as regards Brexit. Therefore it is not a suitable way forward. Those who argue for an election are arguing that they should take charge of Brexit, not that they would stop it.


At the meaningful vote Parliament could set up a referendum on the terms of Brexit with the option to Remain. That is the only realistic way to stop Brexit.

That points us to the campaigning aims we should have, the subject of the next post.


It’s not really a science fiction film. It’s a film about overcoming adversity. The debris that destroys the spaceship is symbolic.

Sandra Bullock makes it back safely to earth.

As George Clooney says: Well, there’s always something we can do.



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