A complicated debate is currently rumbling down the corridors of the Houses of Parliament: could a series of obscure constitutional procedures, brought about by speaker John Bercow, bring Brexit to an end (or at least avoid a No Deal) if the Prime Minister loses the Meaningful Vote?
John Bercow, the Speaker at the House of Commons, could possibly use his discretion as Chair:
- To allow a “Contempt Motion” to be debated
- To allow a wide range of amendments to the Meaningful Vote which might change or weaken it substantially
- To allow a vote on a “Humble Address”
What kind of Amendments could be added to the Withdrawal Agreement?
There has been wide speculation over what amendments MPs might try to table. Most focus on trying to prevent a no-deal, which the majority of MPs can unite against (maybe the only real source of unity right now). Some are already known: Hilary Benn (Labour) has proposed an amendment saying the UK must reject leaving without an Agreement and calls for the government to bring forward a motion for debate on its next steps. His amendment would also allow MPs to add amendments to this motion. The SNP, Lib Dems, and rebel Tory MPs have all shown support for this amendment.
Currently, tabling amendments looks like the easiest, most conventional (and perhaps most democratic) solution for MPs.
What’s a “motion of contempt”?
Being “in contempt of Parliament” means obstructing the House and its business. This includes things like bribing (or attempting to bribe) a member of Parliament, refusing to appear before a committee to testify, refusing to answer questions from a committee, lying in testimony, refusing to swear an oath while testifying… or refusing to publish papers which the government had previously promised (or been forced) to publish. This is how the British Government was found, for the first time in history, to be “in contempt of Parliament” last month when it only delivered partial legal advice on Brexit by the attorney general despite the fact that a Humble Address had called for full publication of this legal advice in November.
There are whispers that a similar motion might be used to prompt debate if the Government attempts to plough on with its Brexit deal (and ignore possible amendments asking the government to extend or revoke Article 50) after the Meaningful Vote is lost (if indeed the vote is lost – which it likely will be if nothing changes in the next week).
So what’s all this about a Humble Address?
As I mentioned, a Humble Address was already used in 2017 and 2018 to force the government to publish legal and economic advice on Brexit. But what exactly is this motion and why would it be useful again in January?
A Humble Address is when Parliament sends a message to the Crown (hence it being described as “humble”) to force a decision of the House to produce some kind of material or papers. The major advantage is that it allows something to happen without having to pass specific legislation to prompt it – the Humble Address is enough on its own, since the Queen theoretically leads government. If a Humble Address is passed in government through a vote, it is binding – the Prime Minister cannot simply shrug it off but must comply.
It is often used after the Queen reads a speech to open Parliament each year – MPs debate the contents of the speech and then decide to send her a Humble Address thanking her for the speech. It was also used to communicate on her 90th birthday.
The Queen has to respond by convention, but in the case of political matters, this is mostly just a formality. Previous uses of the Humble Address were criticised for potentially implicating the Monarch in political matters when she is supposed to stay impartial.
In January, a Humble Address could be used to call for more information on the impact of a no deal to be released, thereby increasing pressure on the government to avoid this outcome. Or perhaps they will attempt to stretch the power of the Address by calling for an extension of Article 50 or a commitment not to leave without a second referendum. Whether or not this would be successful is unclear.
What are the complications?
John Bercow, the Speaker of the House, essential to most of these manoeuvres, is currently under fire for allegations of bullying and harassment. This is particularly poignant in the context of a damning report on bullying in Parliament, by Dame Laura Cox, released in October. The report will be discussed on Monday and you can bet Brexiteers will use it to try and get Bercow out of his position, while Remainers might carefully turn a blind eye while he has the power to help MPs wriggle out of the current Brexit nightmare.
The soap opera goes on…
As always with Brexit, all we can do right now is speculate, hope for the best, and wait to see what happens next. It’s like a soap everyone would like to stop watching and yet which no-one can seem to escape being a (bad) actor in. Parliament returns on the 7th of January, with the Meaningful Vote expected to take place the week after, following a few more days of debate.
Questions? Ideas? Hopes? Fears? Leave them below!
MINI POLITICS is a new series on my blog. Every week, I will be writing a short and simple explanation of a current political issue or event in Europe, designed to be accessible for people who don’t think they’re interested in politics as well as those who are interested in European politics but don’t want to trawl through pages of analysis, or who don’t speak the language of the country where the event is taking place. Mini summaries of big questions, made simple.