Theresa May insists that Parliament can stop the UK from leaving the EU without a deal, but Maddy Thimont Jack says that MPs no longer have a decisive route to prevent a no deal Brexit.
Several Conservative leadership candidates are clear that they prefer leaving the EU without a deal to leaving with Theresa May’s deal – or not leaving at all. If one were to become Prime Minister, then MPs who oppose a no deal Brexit will need a way to block or delay such an outcome.
But unless the Speaker chooses to be even more flexible in his interpretation of parliamentary convention, MPs have limited options.
Pass backbench or Opposition Day motions opposing no deal
Although these wouldn’t have legal teeth, they would be politically important. But these are scheduled by the Government – between November and April the Government didn’t schedule any Opposition Days at all – and a new prime minister could just avoid giving any time to the Opposition ahead of the Article 50 deadline.
Apply to the Speaker for emergency debates under Standing Order 24
These are motions which say that the House has ‘considered’ an issue. The Speaker could grant such a debate, but these motions are in neutral terms (which means they are unamendable) and are not legally binding.
Amend the Queen’s Speech at the start of the next session
A new Conservative leader would be expected to to prorogue Parliament and set out their plans for the next session in a Queen’s Speech – and this would give MPs an opportunity to table amendments which could try and block no deal. But a new prime minister has no obligation to prorogue Parliament and could choose to drag this ‘zombie’ session past the 31 October deadline.
Vote against the Government’s programme
MPs can express their opposition to the Government by opposing all government business. But if the Government isn’t bringing any major new bills before the House then a new prime minister may not be overly concerned by the prospect of inconsequential legislative defeats.
Vote of ‘no confidence’ in the Government
A vote of ‘no confidence’ would trigger a 14-day period where someone else – including Jeremy Corbyn – could try and form a government which wins the support of the Commons. If that cannot be achieved, then the UK would face a general election. But there would need to be a new prime minister in place who is prepared to go to the EU to ask for a further extension before the 31 October deadline is reached.
Parliament’s most successful attempt to avoid no deal earlier this year was the ‘Cooper Bill’s' requirement for the Government to seek a one-off extension to avoid no deal on 12 April. The route to this stemmed from a clause which MPs inserted into the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 – the legislation needed to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and correct deficiencies in domestic law after Brexit.
The clause required the Prime Minister to seek parliamentary approval for her Brexit deal before it could be ratified. But if Parliament rejected the deal then MPs would be able to vote on a motion ‘considering’ the Prime Minister's next steps. Crucially, before Christmas, MPs won the right to amend that motion – giving the Commons a chance to shape both the timetable and the content of the next steps. Through this process the Commons was able to take control briefly of the parliamentary timetable and pass the bill.
But if a new prime minister is set on no deal, then they have no need for further 'meaningful votes'. That denies MPs an opportunity to vote to take control of the timetable again.
And the no deal provision in the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 – which would have required the Government to hold a vote in the Commons if no agreement had been reached with the EU by 21 January – has long expired.
It looks like a near impossible task for MPs to stop a prime minister who is determined to leave the EU without a deal. Parliamentary procedure offers no route, and the only apparent way to blocking no deal – a vote of no confidence – would be a massive gamble for Tory MPs.
But a prime minister who wants to leave the EU without a deal would face considerable pressure, both within Parliament and beyond, to change path, and he or she would have to explain how they would govern in the weeks and months after a no deal exit.
So while the legislative routes may no longer be open, political pressure matters – as any previous occupant of Number 10 would no doubt testify.