Boris Johnson has been forced to issue a public promise to MPs that they will get a vote on any Brexit trade agreement, after Downing Street sparked doubts by refusing to confirm that a deal would go to the Commons for approval.
However, it is thought that no vote will be required if Mr Johnson fails to strike a deal with the EU and the UK crashes out in a no-deal Brexit on 31 December.
The prime minister’s official spokesman was asked 11 times at a Westminster media briefing to confirm that there would be a vote on any deal agreed by Mr Johnson with Brussels.
But he refused to do so, saying only that the government’s plans would be announced by Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg “in due course”.
After his comments caused consternation in Westminster, Downing Street was forced to issue a clarification.
The spokesman issued a statement saying: “If a deal is agreed, it will require legislation to come into force.
”MPs will therefore of course get a vote on any deal before this legislation receives royal assent and becomes law.”
Time is running out for any parliamentary vote before the deadline for the transition to post-Brexit arrangements on 31 December. No date has yet been set for the Commons to break up for the Christmas recess, but this would normally be expected to happen by around 22 December.
With just 17 days left before the UK is due to leave the EU’s single market and customs union the PM’s spokesman rejected suggestions that it was too late for MPs to be given an opportunity to vote on any deal.
But he declined to say whether MPs would have to sit through the Christmas break in order to rush legislation through.
“We are confident that there is time to do whatever we need to do in parliament,” he said. “We have seen parliament at at pace previously where required.”
And he said that he understood that, if no free trade agreement was secured, the UK would simply move onto World Trade Organisation terms in a no-deal Brexit without any requirement for MPs to approve the change.
Pressed on whether ratification would require primary legislation or a simple motion in the Commons or could be enacted by the prime minister alone using the royal prerogative, he said only: “I’m not going to pre-empt the business of the House. We would set out the business of the House in the usual way in due course.”
After repeatedly refusing to confirm that MPs will get a say, the spokesman was asked whether Downing Street was not guaranteeing a vote. “I didn’t say that,” he replied. “I just made the clear point that it’s for the Leader of the House to set out the business of the House in the usual way.”
An attempt to secure a legal requirement for a vote by MPs on any trade deal by inserting a clause into the Trade Bill was defeated by the government in July.
The PM’s spokesman also backtracked on a briefing that a no-deal Brexit is a “possible” or “potential” outcome of negotiations.
The comment was interpreted in Westminster as a possible sign of progress, coming a day after Mr Johnson said no-deal was the “most likely” scenario.
But the PM’s official spokesman issued a clarification stating: “The PM’s words that no-deal remains the ‘most likely’ outcome stand.”