Sitting of the UK Parliament on 19 October

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On Saturday 19 October, the House of Commons and the House of Lords sat to debate, and in the case of the Commons vote on, the revised Withdrawal Agreement for the UK’s exit from the EU. A SPICe blog on the revised Withdrawal Agreement was published on 17 October. The House of Commons Library has produced a full briefing on the revised Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.

The sitting of the UK Parliament is historic. The last weekend meeting being on Saturday 3 April 1982 when the Parliament met to discuss the invasion of the Falkland Islands.

The House of Commons’ sitting started at 9:30am with a statement from the Prime Minister. Following the statement, the Prime Minister took questions from 55 backbench MPs. The statement gave an update on the renegotiated Withdrawal Arrangement and Political Declaration on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The Order Paper for the day set out the order of business including motions and amendments. An explainer of the Saturday sitting is available from the House of Commons Library.

The Speaker of the House of Commons selected two amendments: an amendment in the name of Oliver Letwin MP which withholds agreement of the Withdrawal Agreement until implementing legislation (a Withdrawal Agreement Bill) is passed; and the amendment in the name of Peter Kyle MP which calls for a second referendum.  The SNP tabled two amendments which were not selected for debate. These amendments called for the revocation of Article 50 and an early general election.

Why did the UK Parliament sit?

Saturday 19 October was the last opportunity that the Prime Minister had to avoid having to ask for an extension of Article 50 under the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019, also known as the ‘Benn Act’. The Act provides that the Government requests an Article 50 extension and seeks to defer the date of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU until 31 January 2020 if, by 11pm on 19 October, the House of Commons neither agrees the withdrawal agreement nor approves a motion to leave the EU without a deal.

On 17 October it was announced that the UK and EU had reached an agreement on a revised Withdrawal Agreement for the UK’s exit from the EU.

There are two statutes which give the UK Parliament a role in ratifying a withdrawal agreement:

  • Section 13 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 provides MPs with a role in the approving a withdrawal agreement. It provides a two-step “affirmative approval” process. The first step means that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be ratified by the UK unless the Commons approves a resolution approving both the negotiated withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship – often referred to as a ‘meaningful vote’. The second step is that Parliament passes a European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill to implement the Withdrawal Agreement in domestic law.
  • The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 is not specific to the UK’s exit from the EU. Part 2 of the Act gives the UK Parliament a right to object to the UK being bound by most international treaties. It is, however, a negative approval process meaning that if the UK Parliament does nothing to oppose a treaty, the UK Government can move to ratification.

What happened at the sitting of the House of Commons?

The voting process means that amendments to the motion are voted on before the motion itself. If an amendment or amendments are agreed, a question is then put on whether the motion as amended is agreed. If no amendments are agreed a question on the motion (unamended) is put.

The amendment in the name of Oliver Letwin MP was passed by 322 votes to 306. Speaking after the amendment was passed, Sir Oliver Letwin stated that he would be supporting the Withdrawal Agreement and Withdrawal Agreement Bill. The amendment, Sir Oliver Letwin told MPs was an “insurance policy” to prevent the UK “crashing out” of the EU. This is because the amendment meant that the House will not meet the conditions of the Benn Act by 11pm on 19 October. As such, under the Benn Act a letter must be sent seeking an extension for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU until 31 January.

A full breakdown of the way that each MP voted can be found on the Commons Votes website.

What is the impact of the vote?

The UK Government’s position was that a ‘clean vote’ on the revised Withdrawal Agreement was not possible after the Letwin amendment was passed. A further vote on the motion as amended was therefore pulled by the UK Government. In a point of order after the vote on the Letwin amendment, the Prime Minister said:

“Alas the opportunity to have a meaningful vote has effectively been passed up”.

The question on the Withdrawal Agreement was not put to the House and a meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement was not therefore held.

After the vote, the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP tweeted:

“Excellent – Johnson’s losing run continues and, more importantly, his contradictory promises to the ERG and Labour rebels, and his bad deal overall, can be subject to real scrutiny.#Letwin”

Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn MP, tweeted after the vote:

“Boris Johnson’s deal has been defeated. He must now obey the law – there cannot be a No Deal crash out from the European Union. And we must give the people the final say on Brexit.”

The Liberal Democrats also back a second referendum as do the Green Party.

Reaction from the EU

On 17 October, President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said that there “will be no prolongation” to the UK’s withdrawal of the EU.

After the vote at the House of Commons on 19 October, the European Commission issued a statement which read:

“the European Commission takes note of the vote in the House of Commons today on the so-called #Letwin Amendment meaning that the #WithdrawalAgreement itself was not put to vote today. It will be for the UK government to inform us about the next stages as soon as possible.”

The Prime Minister of Poland tweeted:

“Poland welcomes today’s @HouseofCommons vote not as a rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement but as postponement of its acceptance. We will support a positive approach on EU level to @BroisJohnson government proposal. Avoiding chaotic, no-deal #brexit should be our top priority.”

The European Parliament’s Brexit steering group will meet on 21 October (Monday) to consider the outcome of the vote in the House of Commons.

What happens next?

Speaking after the House of Commons passed the Letwin amendment, the Prime Minister stated that he would not negotiate an extension to the UK’s withdrawal of the EU, stating that “the law did not compel him to do so”.

The UK Government has previously said that it will abide by the Benn Act and write to the EU to seek an extension. The Prime Minister’s comments in the House have cast some doubt on what exactly the UK Government will do. If the Prime Minister does send a letter seeking an extension, the EU does not have to accept an extension.

A legal bid to ensure that the Prime Minister complied with the Benn Act has previously been brought to the Court of Session in Edinburgh with judges stating that the politics had to be played out before they could make a decision in the case. Lord Carloway, Lord President of the Court of Session, said:

“Until the time for sending the letter arrives the Prime Minister has not acted unlawfully… “If October 19 comes and goes without the act having been satisfied the petitioners would be entitled to return to court asking for the Prime Minister to have to comply with the act…The court can only intervene if there is a demonstrable unlawfulness which it requires to correct.”

The Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, has said that he will make an emergency business statement on Monday. There is, however, some uncertainty on the next steps at Parliament with the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow MP, commenting on the “extreme ambiguity” of the situation.

It has been suggested that there will be a meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement on Monday. In order for the revised Withdrawal Agreement to take effect in UK law, it will need to be implemented through legislation by a proposed Withdrawal Agreement Bill. It is likely that a Withdrawal Agreement Bill will be introduced in the UK Parliament on Monday.

Sarah Atherton, Senior Researcher, Parliament and Constitution