Wednesday 23 October 2019

Withdrawal Agreement Bill in Limbo

On Tuesday 22 October, in the House of Commons, the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill passed its Second Reading by 329 to 299.

The Second Reading vote was immediately followed by a Programme Motion vote. This went against the government's proposed, and far too short, timetable for consideration of the Bill during its committee stage. The vote was 308 in favour of the programme motion to 322 against.

The Prime Minister responded
by stating that the Bill would be paused whilst he undertook further discussions with the European Union regarding the request, sent on Saturday 19 October, for a further extension to UK membership.

Later, the government made a Business Statement indicating that Wednesday 23 October and Thursday 24 October would be used to continue the Debate on the Queen's Speech. The House would not sit on Friday 25 October.

Erskine May uses the word "limbo" to describe the situation facing the Bill.  It is possible for the Bill to return. According to Mr Speaker, any motion to enable the Bill to proceed to Committee or beyond requires notice and so will be considered on another day. 

Mr Clive Efford MP sought clarification of the meaning of "limbo".  The Speaker responded - "... the accurate characterisation is that the Bill is not dead, but it is inert. It is not on a journey. It is not progressing or moving from one place to another. It is inert, or alternatively it might be said to be static, but it is not a corpse."  


Response from the EU regarding the requested extension is awaited - - BBC News 24 October 2019.

The EU could refuse the extension and, if so, the UK will exit the EU on 31 October without any withdrawal agreement.

The EU could grant the extension request.  An extension up to 31 January 2020 was requested. It is open to the EU to grant the full period or a shorter period and there is also the possibility of the extension being flexible so that the UK could leave at an earlier time if able to do so - e.g. with all legislation in place.  The extension up to 31 October 2019 was granted on 10 April and was flexible in this sense - Council Conclusions.

The position in law as to whether the Prime Minister must accept an extension that is offered is governed by section 3 of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No 2) Act 2019 - previous post

The UK government will probably now await the outcome of the extension request before stating what its next steps will be. CNN 22 October offers some analysis of the possibilities - Johnson wants to get Brexit done by Halloween. It's going to be a nightmare.

The political desire to "get Brexit done" cannot be more important that doing it in the best way possible. After over 46 years of membership of the EU (and its predecessors) it can hardly be crucial that there is a further short delay.  However that may be, there is the possibility that the government will seek to hold a general election - BBC News 23 October.  Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 that would require the House of Commons to either vote for an early election or to pass a Vote of No Confidence in the form set out in the Act.


1.   Extension requests - There have been two extensions agreed so far - see Institute for Government. On 19 October, Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, requesting another extension until 31 January 2020.  This request was mandated by the European Union (Withdrawal) (No 2) Act 2019 - previous post.

2.   Events during the present extension - There was a lengthy Conservative Party leadership election.  Theresa May stood down as Conservative Party Leader on 7 June and it took until 23 July for a new Party Leader (Boris Johnson) to be selected.  He was appointed Prime Minister on 24 July 2019.  On 19 August 2019 the Prime Minister wrote to Mr Donald Tusk (EU Council President) to say that the "backstop" in the deal negotiated by Theresa May could not be accepted by the UK.

Parliament did not sit from 9 September until its purported prorogation was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court (judgment given on 24 September) - previous post.

Fresh proposals for Northern Ireland / Ireland were put to the EU on 2 October 2019.  Following a meeting between Mr Johnson and the Irish Prime Minister (Leo Varadkar), it became possible to reach a revised withdrawal agreement with the EU - (previous post 17 October).

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