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The UK Parliament is voting on Brexit amendments Tuesday. What does it mean?

Members of Parliament are trying to claim more control of the future of Brexit.

MPs Vote On Theresa May’s Brexit Deal
Pro-Remain and pro-Brexit protesters outside Parliament on January 15, 2019.
Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

There’s more Brexit drama ahead.

The UK Parliament will vote Tuesday in an attempt to gain more control over the Brexit process. They will do this by putting forth a series of amendments that could shift power away from Prime Minister Theresa May’s government and back to members of Parliament when it comes to how, and maybe when, the UK breaks up with the European Union.

That’s the plan, at least. Whether Parliament will succeed, and which faction will prevail — the hardline pro-Brexit camp, or those who’d prefer a softer Brexit (or none at all) — are both open questions.

More than a dozen amendments have been proposed so far. More can still be introduced, and many will probably get withdrawn before the vote because they won’t have a chance in passing Parliament. Even amendments that could succeed — including a fairly popular amendment proposed by the opposition Labour Party that would delay Brexit if a deal isn’t approved end of February — are going to be very, very tight votes.

A lot can happen between now and the voting on Tuesday, which is expected to start around 7 pm GMT (or 2 pm EST). But for now, here’s a breakdown of the vote and why it’s happening.

It seems like there’s a Brexit vote every week. Here’s what this latest one is about.

On January 15, Parliament voted against May’s Brexit deal by a startling margin of 230 votes. May then had to deliver her so-called “Plan B” — that is, her next steps on Brexit — which she did, on January 21.

May’s Plan B sounded a lot like her Plan A: She didn’t offer any concrete changes, but said she’d work more closely with Parliament on determining the post-Brexit EU-UK relationship and on finding a solution to the “Irish backstop,” a guarantee to ensure an open border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and Ireland (which is part of the EU) after Brexit, which hardline Brexiteers strongly oppose. (Check out this video or this explainer for more on this.)

May’s rather uninspired Plan B wasn’t a total surprise: The European Union has pretty much always said that this Brexit deal was the only one on offer, and May so far hasn’t been willing to entertain dramatic alternatives, such as a second referendum to give the public a say over the Brexit process.

But now Parliament gets to chime in. Members of Parliament — both Conservative “backbenchers” (those who aren’t part of May’s government) and Labour and other opposition MPs — will get to tack on their alternatives Brexit.

Okay, but what does Parliament “taking control” of Brexit actually mean?

Parliament has introduced a slew of amendments. They include everything from asking May to go back and renegotiate terms of her deal with the EU to attempts to avoid a no-deal Brexit, a scenario where the UK crashes out of the EU without any agreement or transition period in place.

There are two broad categories these amendments fit into. The first are ones that essentially instruct May’s government on what Parliament wants to see in any Brexit deal. For instance, one amendment seeks to replace the “Irish backstop” in the current deal with unspecified “alternative arrangements.”

The second type of amendments is those that seek to take control of the process by setting new rules on what Parliament can do between now and current Brexit deadline of March 29, 2019. For example, one amendment, introduced by Labour MP Yvette Cooper, aims to avoid a catastrophic no-deal Brexit by forcing the prime minister to request an extension of the Brexit deadline if Parliament hasn’t approved a Brexit deal by February 26.

Jack Simson Caird, an expert on UK law at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law in London, said it’s the second type of amendment that could end up having significant influence on the Brexit process.

Those amendments are “about taking power practically, rather than persuading the government to change its position,” Simson Caird said, which is what the other group of amendments is trying to do.

Amendments like the one Cooper has proposed don’t get into specifics about what May’s deal should look like, it just says there has to be a deal. And if May can’t deliver one, that amendment is basically Parliament saying, “We’re not monkeying around now. We’re just going to take over,” Simson Caird explained.

But both categories of amendments will likely put political pressure on May — and could send a potentially powerful message about what Parliament is, and isn’t, willing to accept when it comes to Brexit.