A Union flag, and a European Union (EU) flag fly as protesters march during a Unite for Europe march to protest Brexit in central London, U.K. (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg)

What Is the Meaning of the `Meaningful Vote’ on Brexit?

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. Parliament is in a bitter fight over how much power it should have over Brexit -- specifically whether lawmakers get to decide what happens next if they vote down the divorce deal Prime Minister Theresa May brings home later this year.

It sounds like process, but it’s not. At stake is whether the U.K. can tumble out of the bloc without a deal -- the chaotic scenario feared by business but championed by the most enthusiastic Brexit cheerleaders -- and whether the whole thing can be undone.

So what’s all the drama about?

Lawmakers in May’s Conservative Party are split over Brexit and the feuding has spilled publicly into the House of Commons, which is trying to pass the mammoth piece of legislation that will graft European Union law onto the British statute book.

Some Tories want to reverse Brexit, others want a clean quick break, and most want something in between. Add to the mix that May doesn’t have a majority in Parliament and any potential rebellion can be lethal to her premiership.

Right now the threat is coming from a group of pro-EU rebels, led by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who potentially number enough to defeat May and are pushing to give Parliament the power to stop a no-deal Brexit happening.

The tool they are using is an amendment to a key piece of legislation that the government needs to get passed before Brexit day. This is what has become known as the “meaningful vote.” Their critics say they are using it as a ruse to stop Brexit altogether.

Where are we up to?

Last Tuesday, the rebels were all set to defeat May with an amendment that would have given Parliament a lot of power to essentially direct the last phase of Brexit talks in the case of no deal being reached or Parliament rejecting May’s deal.

Losing it would have been humiliating at best for May (and could have helped trigger a leadership challenge.) So after some last-minute back-room dealing they agreed -- just before the vote -- to hold their fire after May promised talks to find a compromise.

On Thursday, the rebels thought they had a deal and started telling reporters about it. They thought they would now have a way of blocking a no-deal scenario. Suddenly, they became aware that the agreement was off and the government had sent another text -- which gives Parliament a whole lot less power -- to the House of Lords for a vote.

The rebels cried betrayal and then sent their own rival amendment to the House of Lords, where there’s a pro-EU majority. The political climate now is even more poisonous and paranoid.

Anything that passes in the Lords then has to go back to the elected Commons for the big showdown on Wednesday. While the government thinks it has peeled off enough rebels to avoid defeat, it will be a knife-edge vote.

What happens now?

It gets complicated so bear with us. On Monday from about 6 p.m. in London the Lords will vote on the amendment put forward by the government, and it will probably be defeated.

There will then be a vote on an amendment that reflects the agreement that the rebels thought they had reached with May last week. That text would allow Parliament to prevent no-deal and to direct talks in the event that May’s deal is rejected.

The amendment is expected to pass and the bill, newly amended, heads back to Commons.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.