The Speaker has hinted that he will do all he can to allow Parliament to determine the course of Brexit but, argues Maddy Thimont Jack, this support is no guarantee that MPs can block no deal.
No deal on 31 October is the legal default under Article 50 of the EU treaties. There are three ways to avoid this. Either Parliament approves a deal, the Government requests (and the EU agrees to) another extension to Article 50, or the Government revokes Article 50. But if a new prime minister is determined to pursue a no deal Brexit then, under current parliamentary rules, it will be very difficult to stop them – even though MPs have previously voted to show there is a majority against no deal.
They could hold a vote of no confidence in the Government – but there is no guarantee that would be passed. And if it was, there would still be a huge question mark over how the timeline of a possible general election (if the Commons can’t coalesce around an alternative prime minister) would interact with the Article 50 timeline.
The Speaker could yet end up playing an important role. He all but confirmed his intention to do so when he told the Brookings Institution that “the idea that Parliament is going to… be evacuated from the centre-stage of the debate on Brexit is unimaginable”.
To help MPs demonstrate a majority against no deal, the Speaker could:
Challenge the Government from the chair, as he did when he heavily criticised the decision to pull the first meaningful vote without consulting the House in December 2018.
Grant urgent questions and emergency debates to backbenchers.
Allow votes on amendments on any legislation – Brexit-related or not – which seek to prevent no deal. Although the Government could subsequently drop any unhelpfully amended legislation.
- Interpret parliamentary rules to allow ‘substantive’ motions to be tabled under Standing Order No.24 (the parliamentary rules governing emergency debates). Under these rules, the motion for an emergency debate simply states that the House has ‘considered’ an issue. This means the motion is unamendable. In March, the Speaker told Labour backbencher Helen Goodman that the “opportunities [were] fuller” under these motions than MPs usually realised.
If the implication of this is that the Speaker might interpret SO24 to allow a decision on a substantive motion – one which expresses a point of view – then this would give MPs a chance to approve or reject an outcome.
The only surefire way to direct the Government is to pass legislation – as the Commons did earlier this year when the ‘Cooper Bill’ required the Government to request an extension to Article 50 (although Theresa May had already sent the request to the EU when the bill passed).
If the Speaker did decide to allow a substantive emergency debate motion, that could enable a majority of MPs to take control of time in the Commons and pass another bill requiring the Government to act to avoid no deal. But they would first need agreement on the content of that bill – and enough time to get it through the Lords.
The progress of the ‘Cooper Bill’ was far from straightforward. Many MPs were concerned with the principle of backbenchers legislating without the same levels of accountability as the Government. There will also be the added pressure for Conservative unity under a new leader – and the threat, in some seats, from the Brexit Party.
And the votes last time around were very close. While 400 MPs voted against no deal during the first round of indicative votes in March, in April the ‘Cooper Bill’ itself passed second reading with the support of only 315 MPs (and a majority of five) and third reading with the support of 313 (and majority of only one).
The legislation which finally passed was the fourth draft of a bill designed to stop no deal – and the ‘Cooper Act’ was a very specific ‘one-off’ bill which only forced a vote on extending Article 50 the day after Royal Assent. That is why MPs don’t have a continuing power to stop no deal.
The tactics in the autumn are far from clear. MPs might find that a broader bill – seeking to rule out no deal more permanently – would struggle to win enough support, while another one-off Cooper-style bill may result in a time-sapping war of attrition between Parliament and the Government.
Summer recess and conference recess will also eat into the remaining time, and MPs will not be able to make multiple attempts to take control of the Commons’ order paper. There is also no guarantee that a new prime minister will make their intention clear until much closer to 31 October – possibly only after the European Council in mid-October.
MPs who want to prevent the UK from leaving the EU without a deal need the Speaker to give them the opportunity to pass legislation, and the majority to agree, and stick to, a plan. John Bercow’s comments may have given them some encouragement, but there is still no easy parliamentary route – and very little time – for MPs to block no deal.