BREXIT UPDATE 18: The Letwin Amendment: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

March 26, 2019

In Uncategorized


The debate yesterday (Monday March 25) centred round the crucial amendment – referred to in Brexit Update 17 – that had been tabled, with strong cross-party support, by the Conservative MP and former Cabinet Minister Sir Oliver Letwin.  This amendment called for this Wednesday (March 27) to be a day in which Parliament would set the agenda, debating and voting on options decided by the House of Commons, not the government, in order to find a consensus on the way forward, by means of “indicative votes”.

Opening the debate, the Maybot said her government was opposed to the Letwin amendment because, if passed, it would set a dangerous precedent that would “overturn the democratic process”, upsetting the balance of roles between parliament and the Executive.  The government was prepared, however, she indicated, to set aside time for Parliament to debate and vote on various options (it was clear that these would be options decided by the government).  But, she said, she could not make any guarantee to deliver the outcomes, though she could promise to “engage constructively” with whatever decisions emerged from these “indicative votes”.  In the course of these opening remarks, she made a reference to No Deal that was taken up later by many MPs: “Unless this House agrees to it, No Deal will not happen”.

Jeremy Corbyn began his response by saying that the government’s approach to Brexit has become “a national embarrassment”.  The Maybot’s proposals to the EU leaders had been rejected and new terms had been imposed upon her.  We have been granted a short extension till April 12, but still face the prospect of a disastrous No Deal Brexit.  It is now time for Parliament to take control.  It was ridiculous of the Prime Minister to suggest that Parliament taking control would “overturn the democratic process”; on the contrary, by taking charge Parliament would be carrying out its democratic duty.  Corbyn ended by referring to his alternative Brexit plan, which he claimed could lead to a deal that could command a majority in the House of Commons.   He added that, if the government refused to adopt his plan, then Labour would support a public vote (though he did not specify what the questions would be in such a referendum).

In her reply, the Maybot addressed Corbyn’s accusation that the UK still faces the prospect of a disastrous No Deal, by reverting to her favourite programmed phrase: “the only way to prevent No Deal is to support a deal” – ie her deal, which she made clear she still intends to bring back to the House of Commons for a third time.  She reiterated her refusal to guarantee to deliver the outcomes of Commons “indicative votes”, arguing that, if they contradict the Conservative manifesto, the government cannot support them.  In reply to Corbyn’s claim that his plan could command a majority in the House of Commons, she pointed out that this plan had been rejected by the Commons twice [this, however, is because she ordered the entire Conservative Party to vote against it; the Commons arithmetic means that at present it is bound to fail].   The Maybot ended her reply by insisting that “we can guarantee Brexit and leaving on May 22 by supporting the deal”.

In the ensuing debate, many MPs – in particular Ed Miliband, the former leader of the Labour Party –referred to the Maybot’s statement in her opening remarks – “unless this House agrees to it, No Deal will not happen”, asking her to clarify that this meant that she was ruling out No Deal; if her deal failed on the third attempt, she would not take the UK out of the EU on April 12 without a deal. In response to these questions, the Maybot simply replied with her programmed phrase: “the only way to prevent No Deal is to agree to a deal”.  Her rigid Maybot logic seems to run like this: the only choice is between her deal and No Deal (she has ruled out revoking Article 50, the only other alternative she has ever envisaged); therefore, by rejecting her deal, MPs are agreeing to No Deal; therefore, unless the House of Commons agrees to No Deal by continuing to reject her deal, it will not happen.

The debate was closed by the Maybot’s de facto deputy, David Lidington – who, in rumours published by the Sunday newspapers on March 24, was said to have been chosen by Cabinet plotters to be a caretaker Prime Minister after the overthrow of the Maybot.  In questions to Lidiington, several MPs referred to these rumours by referring to him as “the putative Prime Minister”.

Lidington mostly simply repeated the Maybot’s cryptic comments.  Like her, he could offer no guarantee that any decisions reached by the House of Commons in “indicative votes” — whether the process was controlled by the government or the House of Commons — would be delivered.  He argued that the House of Commons “might come up with something neither negotiable nor realistic”.  Like the Maybot, he was unclear on what would happen if the Letwin Amendment was defeated; there was a vague promise by both May and Lidington that the government would set aside time for a (government-led) debate at the end of this week, with more debates later on if the deal was defeated for a third time.  It also remained unclear if or when the deal would indeed be brought back to Parliament for Meaningful Vote 3.


The Speaker selected three amendments, tabled by Jeremy Corbyn, Dame Margaret Beckett and Sir Oliver Letwin. Corbyn decided in the end not to move his amendment (it seems this was because it was too similar to the Letwin Amendment).


This amendment, tabled by Dame Margaret Beckett, a Labour MP and former Cabinet Minister, tried to make clear an issue that the Maybot  had left in deep confusion: can MPs indeed have a final say on ruling out No Deal?

According to the Beckett Amendment, if the UK is seven days from leaving without a deal, government must allow MPs to vote on whether to leave without a deal or request an extension “‘to give time for Parliament to determine a different approach”.

This amendment was very narrowly defeated, by three votes:  the Ayes: 311; the Noes: 314.


The only clarity that emerged from last night’s debate was yet another clear government defeat.  The Letwin Amendment, which had been one of the main topics of the debate, won by 27 votes:  the Ayes: 329; the Noes 302.  Three ministers resigned from the government in order to vote for the Letwin Amendment.   The “neutral” government motion, as amended, passed by 27 votes: the Ayes: 327; the Noes: 300.

This means that this coming Wednesday (March 27) will be set aside for a debate, organised by the House of Commons itself, that aims at reaching a consensus on the way ahead by debating various options, on which “indicative votes” will be passed to determine which has most support.  There will be five hours of debate on different options; and the process is likely to continue on Monday.[1]

The latest news is that there is speculation about an increased chance of Meaningful Vote 3 on the deal being held later this week, after the prominent right-wing Brexiteer Conservative MP Jacob Rees Mogg suggested he could back it, saying: “I’ve always thought that no deal is better than Mrs May’s deal, but Mrs May’s deal is better than not leaving at all.”[2]  So the Maybot’s blackmailing tactics of threatening right wing Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg with No Brexit seem to be working, at least in his case.  However, the DUP is not only still refusing to back the Maybot’s deal but is saying that a year’s extension would be better than the deal.[3]

The next Brexit Update will discuss the Commons-led debate on Wednesday, the motion and the outcomes of the “indicative votes”, and consider what could happen next.