The week that Parliament broke

The week of all weeks: Was last week the most momentous in parliamentary history? Source: Maurice (via Flickr)

By Charlotte King, Lowri Pitcher and Sam Tilley

The Commons had some interesting visitors…

On Monday 1 April, 11 environmental protesters from the socio-political movement, Extinction Rebellion, staged a protest in the public gallery of the House of Commons. The group aims to slow down climate change, halt the loss of biodiversity and minimize the risk of human extinction as a result of climate change. In response to their acts in the Commons, a member said: “We are walking dangerously close to irreversible climate collapse- this is what it has come to.”

What drew particular public attention was the way in which the protesters conducted their protest. They stood half naked against the pane of security glass in the public viewing gallery which overlooks the floor of the House of Commons. Two members were said to have painted themselves in grey body paint and wore elephant masks, while others superglued their hands to the glass.

MPs debating during the commotion took the event lightly. James Heappey MP wrote on Twitter: “Parliament just got a little bit more nuts!” Similarly, brexiteer Andrea Jenkyns claimed: “And they say Brexiteers are extremists! I ain’t getting my clothes off, Even for Brexit. Mad world!” After their 25 minute demonstration, the group was removed from the House and Scotland Yard later arrested them on account of outraging public decency.

This is only one among many upcoming demonstrations, on their website, Extinction Rebellion states: ”Beginning Monday 15 April, Extinction Rebellion in the UK and around the world are calling for a full-scale International Rebellion: to demand decisive action on the climate and ecological collapse from governments around the world.” Maybe, the House of Commons will not be the only establishment to witness such an unexpected event in the coming days.

Is it finally time for a Commons refurbishment?

What’s more, to top off one of the most bizarre weeks in Parliamentary history, the House of Commons has also been suspended since last Thursday following April showers in the press gallery.

In the midst of Conservative MP Justine Greening’s speech on taxation, a water leak broke out in the Commons chamber, soaking the lower press gallery and a cafe on the floor above. Soon thereafter, the leak became so disruptive that Labour MP Justine Madders was struggling to be heard.

Madders jokingly commented, “I think there’s probably some symbolism going on, about how broken parliament is”. Tory MP Julia Lopez also tweeted, “A very noisy torrent of water coming in from the ceiling – is this a Biblical flood coming to wash us all away?!!”

The debate on taxation pushed on for 10 minutes before Deputy Speaker Linsday Hoyle announced he was adjourning the day’s sitting to allow maintenance staff to find the source of the leak and fix it. A spokesperson for the House of Commons said, “We’re working urgently to resolve it…[the] maintenance team is currently assessing the damage”. MPs were then not due to sit in the chamber until Monday afternoon.

On a more serious note, there was a significant parliamentary first

By far the most significant event in the House of Commons last week was brought about by Labour MP Hilary Benn’s amendment, voted on last Wednesday. It was not the nature of Benn’s amendment which made this vote so historical, but rather the fact that the result of the vote was a tie, a rarity in the Commons.

For the first time since 1990, MPs proved themselves to be totally divided. The last time a Commons vote resulted in a tie was when MPs debated an amendment to the Law Relating to Termination of Pregnancy, calling upon Deputy Speaker Sir Paul Dean to cast the deciding vote.

In the extremely rare event of a tied vote, official parliamentary procedure dictates that the Speaker of the House casts the final vote to break the deadlock. Whilst there have been various tied votes in parliamentary history, this is the first time the Speaker, rather than the Deputy Speaker, has been called upon to make the final call.

Benn’s amendment called for MPs to vote on whether they wanted a third round of indicative votes this week. Whilst 310 MPs voted in favour of the amendment, 310 voted against. This tie resulted in John Bercow, the current Speaker of the House of Commons, casting his vote in favour of the government as it is an unwritten parliamentary rule that the Speaker cannot grant a new policy decision a majority, as he would have done if he had voted against the Government. This inevitably delayed the Speaker’s announcement of the result, raising tensions and anticipation amongst MPs in the Commons.

In total, there were 25 MPs who did not vote on the amendment, making the tied result even more damning because if just one of those MPs had cast a vote, the Speaker would not have been called upon to break the deadlock for the first time in recent parliamentary history.

So, what has really been happening in the Commons this week?

On Tuesday 2 April, Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Conservative Sir Oliver Letwin proposed a bill to the House of Commons which would force Theresa May to request the EU for a long extension to Article 50 if she fails to secure a withdrawal deal by April 12. This would essentially rule-out a no deal Brexit, provided the EU agreed to the extension.

On Wednesday 3 April, after voting on amendments, one of which resulted in a tie, the bill passed by one vote. The bill was especially notable for featuring a large number of abstentions from both sides of the House; over 20 MPs did not vote either way. A bill usually takes a number of sittings to pass through the House of Commons yet Cooper’s Bill managed to clear all of the legislative hurdles in only one day. The bill, obviously with Britain’s exit from the EU at the time scheduled for April 12, was then forced through the House of Lords on Thursday, but its more thorough ways of looking at legislation meant that the bill, as of the time of writing, is yet to pass the Lords.

Is May shifting towards a softer Brexit?

In a live statement on April 2, Prime Minister Theresa May announced to the nation that she plans to ask the EU for a further extension of Article 50 in another attempt to bypass the “logjam” of Brexit. However, in what was arguably an even more significant move, May publicly reached out to Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn to request that the two leaders meet to discuss the next steps of the negotiation process.

The PM announced, “Leaving with a deal is the best solution…we will need a further extension of Article 50, one that is as short as possible and which ends when we pass a deal,” indicating that the prospect of the UK leaving the EU without a deal is becoming increasingly unlikely. In addition, she called out to Corbyn to “try to agree a plan that we would both stick to, to ensure that we leave the European Union and that we do so with a deal,” however, she emphasised that any agreed plan would be based off her three-times rejected withdrawal agreement.

Corbyn accepted the PM’s invitation and the two met over consecutive days last week and announced it had been a “constructive” first day of negotiations. This move indicates that the PM may be shifting towards seeking a softer Brexit deal which is seen as a blessing to many in the Labour Party.

However, in light of these recent developments, Corbyn has been feeling the pressure from some within the Labour Party who fear he may agree to a Brexit deal without calling for a referendum on the matter. Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, has written to colleagues insisting that any confirmed agreement between the party leaders must seek a mandate through a public vote. Thornberry stated that reaching any decision other than a confirmatory vote would “be in breach of the decision made unanimously by conference in Liverpool” and that remain must be an option in opposition to the negotiated withdrawal agreement.

Speaking in the House of Commons recently, Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, further advocated for a public vote, stating, “At this late stage it is clear that any Brexit deal agreed in this parliament will need further democratic approval”.

However, following his first meeting with the PM, Corbyn responded to the rising doubts surrounding his support of a public vote, tweeting that he had not only put forward Labour’s alternative withdrawal plan to May but also raised the option of holding a public vote on the agreed deal. A Labour spokesperson has stated, “We have had constructive exploratory discussions…[and] we have agreed a programme of work between our teams to explore the scope for agreement”.

Ultimately, if May fails to reach a compromise with Corbyn on a withdrawal agreement, it is understood that she hopes to get his support for a ‘binding process’ in the House of Commons to decide on an ‘acceptable Brexit process’.

The EU has been continuing its preparations

Whilst UK preparations for exiting the EU are being debated, the EU has also been agreeing on the EU-UK future relationship. On 4 April the European Parliament approved a bill which will guarantee Britons the right to stay in the EU for a period of up to 90 days in any 180-day period, even in the event of a no-deal, on the provision that the UK does the same.

Additionally, a 34-page leaked document has emerged relating to the future EU-UK relationship after Brexit. The document details that 17 EU member states have passed temporary legislation which will allow British nationals to remain in their countries under a grace period during which they will be able to confirm their status according to the countries’ migration laws. It also notes how certain member states may refuse Britons from entering and staying in their country if it constitutes as a danger to public order or security.

Chief executive of the travel association Abta, Mark Tanzer responded to the move saying “Today’s vote provides absolute certainty that UK holidaymakers and business travellers will be able to travel visa-free to Europe, deal or no deal. It follows on from the confirmation a few weeks ago that flights will continue to operate, even in a no deal.”

Where can we expect the Brexit negotiations to head next?

In light of last week’s events, Gair Rhydd has made some predictions for the week to come. It is expected that Theresa May will reach out to the EU on Friday and there is a possibility that she will accept a long extension of Article 50 if one is proposed; currently, the end date of a long extension is near impossible to specify, but would likely be anywhere between one to two years.

If May is shifting towards a softer Brexit deal and she accepts the offer of a long extension from the EU, we expect there will have been numerous cabinet and ministerial extensions over the weekend just gone. A few hard Brexiteer cabinet ministers we anticipate could resign over a Brexit extension are Liz Truss, Penny Mordaunt and potentially Chris Grayling, and there are possibly up to 15 junior ministers who could also resign.

As for Jeremy Corbyn, there is a possibility that the Labour Party leader could come under more and more pressure from those within his party if he does not insist that May tables a public vote as a key plank of the negotiated withdrawal agreement, and if he does not we may expect to see further disenchantment between Corbyn and some MPs within his party.

Last week was undoubtedly one of the most momentous weeks in parliamentary history. Despite ‘normal parliamentary process’ having gone out of the window as the Government tackles the problem of finding a majority-agreed Brexit deal, naked protestors, leaking ceilings and tied votes shifted the House of Commons even further away from normality. Overall, it does appear that Theresa May could be shifting towards a softer Brexit and an extension of Article 50 in pursuit of finding common ground with the Labour Party, a move which could fracture the Conservative Party in weeks to come.

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