Today was another day of high political drama in the House of Commons. Although MPs voted to give the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill a second reading, they failed to pass the programme motion necessary to progress the bill. But what, exactly, happened in the Commons today?
Second Reading is the first substantive stage in a bill’s journey through the House of Commons (First Reading is merely a formality). At that point, MPs are essentially weighing in on the general principle behind the legislation. Although Labour whipped its MPs against the bill, nineteen of them broke ranks and voted with the Government, allowing the bill to receive a second reading by a vote of 329 to 299.
However, this victory soon proved to be fleeting. Following second reading, the Government generally moves a ‘programme motion’ that allocates time for the remaining parliamentary stages (i.e., Committee, Consideration on Report, and Third Reading). In this case, the timetable was very tight so the Brexit bill could pass by the end of Thursday’s sitting.
It soon became clear that many MPs weren’t willing to rush through a 110-page bill in three days, and they rejected the programme motion by a vote of 308 to 322. This leaves the bill in limbo, as it can’t proceed until the House makes an order authorizing the next stage of proceedings. In theory, the Government could simply table a revised programme motion, but it would need to offer a radically different timetable to have any hope of passing.
For now, it looks like Ministers are content to let the bill languish on the back burner while they try to persuade MPs to vote for an early General Election. They may finally get their wish. Provided the European Union grants an Article 50 extension that removes the immediate threat of a no-deal Brexit, Opposition MPs seem poised to agree to an early poll, as this is likely the only way to break the Brexit deadlock.