15:14, April 03 322 0 theguardian.com

2019-04-03 15:14:06
Bill to prevent no-deal Brexit passes second vote in the Commons

A cross-party group of MPs has forced through the first steps for an emergency bill to instruct Theresa May to seek an extension to article 50 and avoid a no-deal Brexit in just a few hours despite government opposition.

The second reading of the bill, spearheaded by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Conservative Sir Oliver Letwin, passed by five votes, after just one hour of debate, with a final vote expected at 10pm.

However, the plan was almost scuppered during the frenzied day in parliament, after MPs voted by a majority of just one MP to let the snap bill proceed.

After MPs then voted 312 votes to 311 to allow the bill to proceed, Cooper and Letwin then had just four hours to pass the bill’s second reading, committee stage and third reading through the Commons.

Minutes before the first vote, an amendment from Labour’s Hilary Benn to grant more time for indicative votes was blocked in extraordinary circumstances, after the Speaker, John Bercow, was forced to make the casting vote after a tied result in the House of Commons.

Benn’s amendment, which would have given MPs control over the order paper on Monday to hold further indicative votes, fell after MPs’ votes were tied with 310 each way.

Bercow said it was precedent for the Speaker to vote with the government, which had opposed the motion and the amendments. “In accordance with precedent and on the principle that important decisions should not be taken except by majority, I cast my vote with the noes,” he said. “That is the proper way in which to proceed.”

The Speaker said the situation had not occurred since 1993, a vote which had involved the Maastricht treaty bill.

The government opposed both the Cooper-Letwin motion and Benn’s amendment. The Commons leader, Andrea Leadsom, argued earlier in the debate that the government had already said it would request a short extension.

Speaking in the debate, Letwin said the government’s plan to seek an extension was a “enormously welcome development” and he did not have doubts that they would seek to avoid a no-deal Brexit, but there was still a need to pass legislation.

“There is concern that there should be a transparent and orderly statutory framework where the house has the opportunity to consider the length of the extension which is asked for and to provide the prime minister with backing for that request to the EU,” he said.

The veteran Brexiter Bill Cash called the bill “reprehensible” and said it would set a terrible precedent for the government to rush through legislation in a single day. “This is something profoundly undemocratic,” he said.

Cooper said the bill would deliberately not specify the length of an extension. “It should be for the prime minister to put a proposal forward,” she said. “It is right she puts that forward and then the House will decide.”

Labour and the SNP whipped in support of the motion and are expected to support Cooper’s bill later in the evening. MPs will debate and vote on all the bill’s remaining stages on Wednesday evening, with votes at 7pm and 10pm on second and third readings.

If passed, the legislation could be debated in the Lords as soon as Friday or Monday, where it is likely to encounter attempts to frustrate its progress by Eurosceptic peers. However, Labour sources in the Lords said supportive peers were preparing to stay up all night to ensure any attempts to filibuster the legislation were not successful.

MPs could still attempt to amend Cooper’s bill to change the terms of the extension. Brexiters including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker, as well as the Tory remainers Nicky Morgan and Damian Green, have submitted an amendment proposing the so-called Malthouse compromise. That amendment would commit the prime minster to extend article 50 until December 2021 to renegotiate the backstop in the withdrawal agreement and replace it with alternative arrangements.