A report by an influential think tank has concluded that it looks ‘very difficult’ for MPs to be able to stop a no-deal Brexit. The Institute For Government explains how the lack of time before October 31st, the power of the Government in Parliament, and the limited avenues for those opposed to no-deal to act, means that even if MPs ‘assemble a majority’ against no-deal ‘they may find few opportunities to make their move’.
Boris Johnson has pledged to leave the European Union by October 31st — ‘do or die’ — and therefore with few signs of a new deal, the chances of leaving without one are increasing. Although MPs have already voted against the principle of no-deal three times, unlike May’s government, the new PM has ‘no legally binding requirement to consult the Commons and therefore, with the two at loggerheads, the IFG predicts an ‘autumn standoff’.
The report outlines several options available to MPs wanting to stop no-deal:
1: Pass motions voicing their opposition
MPs can pass backbench business or opposition day motions to show their objection to a no-deal Brexit. Despite the Speaker stating the Government should ‘respect the opinion of the house’ if a motion is passed, an increasingly belligerent executive would be likely to ignore its political importance and instead stress how the motion lacks any ‘legal teeth’.
Chance of Success: The allocation of such days is ‘up to the Government’ and with none previously scheduled between November and April, it is likely the Government would not bestow such time. Even if passed it would lack legal force.
2: Apply for a Standing Order No.24
The report outlines how the Speaker could grant MPs an emergency debate where the House can ‘consider’ no deal. Bercow has implied, that in a break with precedent, he could allow MPs to use a debate to take control of the Commons’ agenda, using that time ‘to introduce legislation forcing the Government’s hand on Brexit’.
Chance of Success: Though it’s likely a debate would be granted, ‘the Government might still refuse to change its position’, and if legislation was allowed to be introduced it would still require a ‘stable majority’. The difficulty of achieving this was reflected in the previous attempt by MPs to take control and force a Brexit delay, known as the Cooper Bill. While 400MPs voted against leaving the EU, the Cooper Bill passed with ‘a majority of only one’. With Tory MPs fearful of the Brexit Party and some Labour MPs cautious of the party’s second referendum stance, a majority will be harder to find.
3: MPs could disrupt Government legislation
With an executive ignoring Parliament, MPs could resort to amending or refusing to vote through crucial pieces of legislation. For instance, even though the Government could find ‘workarounds’ to avoid votes on no-deal legislation, and bring few other bills to the Commons, the report finds two pieces of legislation that ‘it might need’: an Emergency Budget, and a Northern Ireland Bill.
Chance of Success: MPs could bring Government to a halt or more likely attempt to amend legislation, to prevent it ‘coming into effect’ in a no-deal scenario. However, in July a similar attempt to limit departmental spending was unsuccessful after MPs were concerned about how the public may perceive blocking key public funds. It outlined how for this to work, MPs will need to be careful over which pieces of legislation to amend. However, this would not ‘actually stop no-deal but simply limit’ the ‘Government’s powers’ — essentially this tactic is based on a hope that in the face of growing restrictions, Boris Johnson would change tack. The first opportunity to attempt this will be September 9th, involving a neutral motion on Northern Ireland.
4: A vote of no-confidence
An instance where the Government cannot restrict time, is if Corbyn tabled a motion of no-confidence in the Government. If successful, some Conservative MPs would need to vote against the Government, and those Labour MPs worried about not leaving the EU would need to be assured that collapsing the Government would not stop this.
Chance of Success: If passed, then MPs of all sides would have 14 days to attempt to form a majority able to govern. However, Labour have distanced themselves from forming a government of ‘national unity’ with other parties to stop no-deal, whilst Johnson has suggested that he would refuse to resign. If no majority can be found, then, the report concludes, the Government has the power to determine the date of the election, and therefore ‘Johnson could try and set a date after 31st October, thereby ensuring’ Brexit has already taken place. However, the IFG says this is ‘hugely controversial’ as it would require the civil service to carry out a significant policy change whilst a caretaker government is in place. Despite this, no-deal would remain the legal default and therefore the civil service would be adhering to its convention of following the status quo.
Any confidence motion is all about time. With 22 sitting days between the Commons’ return and Brexit, even if MPs vote against the Government, it ‘could come too late to make a difference’.
Two fundamentals currently sustain the no-deal course: Boris Johnson is Prime Minister, and there is no sign of mass public support against it. Until this changes, MPs may find it nearly impossible to stop a No-Deal Brexit.
MPs may yet come to regret their decision to reject May’s agreement — that could have been their last chance to leave with a deal. Underlining this, though, was the decision to trigger Article 50, agreeing that Britain will leave with no-deal if negotiations fail — symbolising a key instance of Parliament’s short-termism.
Immediate recognition of the referendum result is now coming to cost MPs dearly, who regret having to face such a limited-scope choice as deal, no deal, or stopping Brexit.