There were unusual scenes as the speaker, John Bercow, accepted an amendment that forces the May government to come up with a Plan B within three days of the withdrawal agreement being voted down on January 15.
The amendment was passed, much to the discomfiture of the ruling benches. The government also lost on Tuesday night when another amendment curbing its financial powers in the event of ‘no-deal Brexit’ without authorisation from parliament.
Cut-and-thrust between pro and anti-Brexit forces intensified as the five-day Brexit debate began after Prime Minister’s Question Times, when May announced that MPs will get the final say on whether the controversial ‘backstop’ for Ireland-Northern Ireland will come into force or not.
The ‘backstop’ is a fallback option to avoid a hard border between the two if a trade deal is not agreed at the end of the transition period (December 31, 2020). It is seen by many as tethering the UK to EU rules permanently, as per the wording in the legally-enforceable withdrawal agreement.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called it ‘window-dressing’, but May insisted she had gained new EU assurances with legal status: “These discussions have shown that further clarification on the backstop is possible, and those talks will continue over the next few days.”
“We’ve also been looking at how parliament can take a greater role as we take negotiations on to the next stage. And so I can tell the house that in the event that our future relationship or alternative arrangements are not ready by the end of 2020, parliament will have a vote on whether to seek to extend the implementation period, or bring the backstop into effect.”
May hopes more details related to the ‘backstop’ to be announced before the January 15 vote will persuade MPs to support the withdrawal agreement, though there were little signs of MPs opposed to it changing their views on Wednesday.
Speaker Bercow faced a backlash when he accepted the amendment forcing the government to come up with a Plan B within three days of losing the January 15 vote, instead of the earlier 21 days. He insisted he remained impartial on the Brexit issue.
The government lost the vote on the amendment by 11 votes, with 297 MPs voting with them and 308 against, as MPs alleged that Bercow broke rules and ignored the advice of his own clerks.
Bercow said he had made an “honest judgement” after consulting his clerks and said that if people wanted to vote against the amendment they could. MPs, including House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, challenged his ruling in a series of points of order.