19 Mar 2019

“Meaningful Vote 3” could be held day before Brexit

Political Editor

Two government sources suggest the Meaningful Vote “take 3” might happen on Thursday of next week. Of course, like everything else right now, that could change. But if it did pan out that way it would mean voting on the eve of the 11pm 29th March departure time that is still in UK law.

The week would start with a Monday statement from Theresa May following the EU summit which happens this Thursday and Friday. There has been talk in government of then having a “paving motion” ahead of the Meaningful Vote to over-rule the objections of the Speaker by proving there is parliamentary will for a third attempt at getting the deal through.

At today’s Cabinet, the Prime Minister introduced a discussion on how an extension might work and the options on offer. The Prime Minister would like to secure a short extension from the EU which she can deploy if her deal passes. But she also needs the option of a longer extension in her back pocket should her deal fail as she doesn’t want the UK to tip into a void.

Today’s Cabinet showed the difficulties of applying for a longer extension. Several Cabinet ministers aired their loathing of the idea. Their main objection is the duration of 1 or 2 years which could see the prospects of Brexit recede altogether. To make it all the more unpalatable the EU today underlined how it would only be available if the UK committed to a second referendum, a general election or an intensive search for a consensus approach in Parliament (dropping Theresa May’s red lines).

I’m told by one in the room that no-one actually committed to resigning rather than signing up to a longer extension but many aired their objections in a way that made you wonder if they would hang around to implement it. One Cabinet minister thought many of the contributions were aimed at the Tory leadership electorate outside: “Liz (Truss) made sure she was very briefable … Andrea (Leadsom) promoted herself as the Brexiteer in Chief (as) she knows outsider (leadership) candidates have got stronger positions.”

So if the Prime Minister lost the Meaningful Vote with only hours to go until the specified Brexit date, what would happen?

One minister told me the Prime Minister would simply back-fill jobs vacated by resigning ministers and soldier on seeking a cross-party consensus. Several other MPs said that just wouldn’t be possible and her premiership would be at an end. But then what? Britain could be completely rudderless on the brink, one foot in the EU and one foot out. Any attempt to crash out with “no deal” could be ruled in contempt of votes of the Commons. But the only extension on offer would need to be approved.

Next week’s constitutional crisis could make the one triggered by the Speaker yesterday look like a tea party.