Tuesday 23 January 2018

What does tonight's Article 50 vote mean for Brexit - and what happens next?

British Prime Minister Theresa May Picture: AFP/Getty
British Prime Minister Theresa May Picture: AFP/Getty

Peter Dominiczak, Gordon Rayner, and Kate McCann

The UK Prime Minister is forcing MPs to say whether they back Brexit by asking them to vote in Parliament on whether they "respect" the will of the British people.

It comes as the Supreme Court considers whether Theresa May can get on with Brexit negotiations without MPs' approval.

But what does it all mean for the process of Britain's departure from the EU?

What has the Government done?

Theresa May has tabled an amendment which will force a non-binding Commons vote on whether Parliament agrees that the Government must trigger Article 50, which begins formal Brexit talks, by the end of March next year.

Downing Street has also committed to presenting MPs with a Brexit “plan” after criticism from backbenchers.

How does this affect the Supreme Court hearing on Article 50?

On Monday, eleven Supreme Court judges began hearing a Government appeal calling for Mrs May to be able to trigger Article 50 without the approval of Parliament.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
UK Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

In its case, the Government is arguing that Mrs May should be able to use the royal prerogative to trigger Brexit negotiations, which does not require a vote in Parliament.

However, Wednesday’s vote is not binding - meaning that it technically does not have any bearing whatsoever on the Supreme Court case.

What is the point of the court ruling if the Government has already held a Commons vote on Article 50?

Wednesday’s amendment only states that Parliament “should respect the wishes of the United Kingdom as expressed in the referendum on 23 June; and further calls on the Government to invoke Article 50 by 31 March 2017”.

Crucially, it does not trigger Article 50. It is only a commitment to do so by the end of March next year.

But it will force Europhile MPs to say whether or not they will back the triggering of Article 50.

The Supreme Court will rule on whether or not Mrs May must seek a binding vote in Parliament before she tells Brussels that she has formally triggered Article 50 and that negotiations have started.

If the Supreme Court rules against her, that vote would give MPs an opportunity to block Brexit by voting against the Government.

It means that Mrs May will need an Article 50 Act of Parliament, which will also have to be passed by the House of Lords.

A number of peers have already hinted that they are prepared to block Brexit, meaning the path of any Article 50 bill will not be smooth.

What is the point of the court ruling if the Government has already held a Commons vote on Article 50?

Wednesday’s amendment only states that Parliament “should respect the wishes of the United Kingdom as expressed in the referendum on 23 June; and further calls on the Government to invoke Article 50 by 31 March 2017”.

Crucially, it does not trigger Article 50. It is only a commitment to do so by the end of March next year.

But it will force Europhile MPs to say whether or not they will back the triggering of Article 50.

The Supreme Court will rule on whether or not Mrs May must seek a binding vote in Parliament before she tells Brussels that she has formally triggered Article 50 and that negotiations have started.

If the Supreme Court rules against her, that vote would give MPs an opportunity to block Brexit by voting against the Government.

It means that Mrs May will need an Article 50 Act of Parliament, which will also have to be passed by the House of Lords.

A number of peers have already hinted that they are prepared to block Brexit, meaning the path of any Article 50 bill will not be smooth.

What do the parties think about Article 50?

Conservatives

Conservative MPs will be whipped to vote in favour of the Government's amendment which states that Article 50 will be triggered by March 2017.

This means every Tory will be expected to back Theresa May's plan to trigger Article 50 by the end of March next year.

The Government expects to win the vote, which means Mrs May will be able to claim a victory and support for her timetable for the first time. MPs will be free to vote in support of the Labour motion while also supporting the Prime Minister.

Labour

Jeremy Corbyn has said Labour will not block Article 50 but it is far from clear whether rebellious MPs will follow his lead. The Labour leader warned he will make amendments to any bill seeking to trigger the clause in order to protect worker's rights and social freedoms.

A few Labour MPs, including the former leadership contender Owen Smith, have indicated they might block it altogether if certain conditions are not met.

In the Commons the party will support the motion it tabled as well as the Government's amendment setting out a timetable for Article 50, handing the Prime Minister a victory.

Liberal Democrats

Tim Farron has said his party will block Theresa May triggering Article 50 unless she guarantees a second referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal.

The party will back Labour's motion in the House but will oppose the Government's amendment, which would have committed the party to supporting the timetable for leaving.

Liberal Democrats have been accused of attempting to thwart the will of the people by refusing to back Article 50 unless a second referendum is promised, but with just nine MPs the party does not pose much of a threat as long as the Prime Minister has her party on side.

Scottish National Party

The SNP has tabled its own amendment to Labour's motion, calling for a formal role for the devolved administrations.

It will not support the Government's amendment on a timetable to trigger formal exit plans by March next year but will back calls for more information on Brexit as set out by the Labour party alongside its own new clause.

Stephen Gethins, the party's Europe spokesman, said: "This amendment seeks to give representation and a say to the devolved administrations across the UK and ensure that Westminster understands that the SNP will do all it can to protect Scotland’s interests."

Democratic Unionist Party

The DUP backs the Government on triggering Article 50 and both Nigel Dodds, the party's deputy leader and Jeffrey Donaldson, the chief whip, will add their names to the Government's amendment to show their support.

This means the Prime Minister can count on the party's MPs to back her timetable for triggering Brexit.

The party supported leaving the European Union in the referendum and has spoken out against those who are seeking to delay the exit by demanding a second referendum on the terms.

House of Lords

Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders in the House of Lords have said they will not seek to block Article 50 but that they will look at ways to improve legislation when it comes before the House.

A source said no more than a couple of dozen peers would be likely to block the formal exit process altogether, but there are fears that in laying down amendments the timetable for leaving the union could be delayed.

A number of peers, including Conservative Baroness Wheatcroft, have publicly said they will block Article 50 but it is unlikely that they would have a majority.

What happens next?

Wednesday 7 December: Parliament will vote on a motion tabled by Labour, with a Tory amendment that challenges the Commons to “respect the wishes” of UK voters by calling on the Government to invoke Article 50 by March 31.

Thursday 8 December: Closing arguments in Supreme Court case which will decide whether Theresa May has the power to trigger Article 50 using a royal prerogative, rather than by an Act of Parliament

January: Supreme Court expected to deliver its ruling on the case it is currently hearing

March 31, 2017: The deadline Mrs May has set for invoking Article 50 by notifying the European Council of Britain’s intention to leave the EU

September 30, 2018: Date by which EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, wants to wrap up deal on Britain’s exit from the Union

March 31, 2019: Date by which Theresa May wants to wrap up negotiations over Brexit

May 2019? Britain formally exits the EU, following ratification of Brexit by all other member states

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