Parliament is back in action today and David Davis kicked the new session off with a bang. In a statement to the House, the Brexit Secretary appeared to perform a U-turn as he announced that the final Brexit deal will take the form of an act of Parliament. This means that as well as the current ‘take it or leave it’ vote in principle on the Brexit deal, the final agreement will need to be enshrined in law and, importantly, be subject to scrutiny and a vote by MPs and peers. As the Department for Exiting the European Union puts it:
‘The bill is expected to cover the contents of the withdrawal agreement, including issues such as an agreement on citizens’ rights, any financial settlement and the details of an implementation period agreed between both sides.
Bringing forward this bill means that parliament will be given time to debate, scrutinise and vote on the final agreement we strike with the EU. It comes over and above the undertaking the government has already made that it will give parliament a vote on the final deal as soon as possible after the deal is agreed.’
This concession from the government will worry some Brexiteers who fear it could allow MPs to alter the terms of the deal by amending the legislation. Tellingly, it comes as the government try to persuade Tory rebels to play ball over the EU Withdrawal Bill which returns to the House tomorrow – and this concession is aimed directly at an amendment to that nature from Dominic Grieve.
Labour’s Keir Starmer has been quick off the mark to praise the ‘big’ concession as a win for the Opposition – and a sign of a weak and wobbly government:
‘This is a significant climbdown from a weak government on the verge of defeat. For months, Labour has been calling on ministers to guarantee parliament a final say on the withdrawal agreement. With less than 24 hours before they had to defend their flawed bill to parliament they have finally backed down.’
But has Starmer once again mistook crumbs for bread? How big a concession the government has made remains up for debate. Before Remainers get the prosecco out, it’s worth noting that Davis said in the event of a ‘no deal’ scenario, MPs and peers would not have any vote as there would not be anything to have a bill based on.
What’s more, there’s no clarity on whether rejecting the bill would mean sending the government back to renegotiate or just result in the UK going for ‘no deal’ and exiting on WTO terms. The timing is key here – but the government are unable to guarantee that it wouldn’t be the day before Britain leaves as they can’t say for sure when the negotiations will end. Even if time is on the government’s side, there are also so many different parties involved in achieving the final deal that it seems unlikely Parliament could just keep sending Davis back to Brussels until he got is just right. Surely such a tactic would weaken the government’s hand.
In a bid to keep both Brexiteers and Remainers on side, Davis ended his appearance at the despatch box by describing the vote as ‘a meaningful vote, but not one that can undo Brexit’. But how ‘meaningful’ it can be is clear as mud until the remit and timeframe are known.