After the Prime Minister pulled the meaningful vote, some MPs are worried that Government may choose to run down the clock and force them either to accept the PM’s deal or face a disorderly Brexit.
If MPs wanted to prevent a no deal exit, or direct what the Government does next, there are five ways they could make their views known.
If there is a vote (either the Government bringing back the motion to approve its deal or the one required under the EU Withdrawal Act to be tabled by 21 January if there is “no deal”), MPs can seek to amend it. The Government has said it will schedule a vote (even through it is not clear that it must) and that the motion will be amendable. However, amendments to a motion are not legally binding.
If the Government decided against scheduling another vote, MPs could use other time available to them to indicate their opposition to no deal. This could be an Opposition Day debate or Backbench Business Committee debate. But the Government controls the timing for these and may simply avoid scheduling them, leaving MPs to rely on Urgent Questions and Emergency Debates.
The Government still has nine Brexit bills to pass of which at least three are needed to manage “no deal”. The most obvious candidate for amendment is the Trade Bill – which has not returned to the Lords since its Second Reading in September. MPs have already tried and failed to amend the bill to set government negotiating objectives for the future relationship. Now it would be down to the Lords to table amendments.
MPs could also vote against, or slow down approval of, some of the roughly 700 Statutory Instruments which need to be passed to correct the UK statute book for a no deal scenario. Parliament could pressure the Government by rejecting critical Statutory instruments or forcing statutory instruments tabled under the “affirmative” scrutiny procedure be debated on the floor of the House instead of in a public bill committee. But this would be a protest move without an opportunity to ‘direct’ the Government and risks derailing no deal planning without setting out an alternative approach.
Another pressure tactic would be to target the Finance Bill, which puts the Budget into law. If MPs really wanted to put pressure on the Government, they could vote against the bill at third reading – which would prevent the Government from levying income and corporation tax next year. MPs could also target ‘supplementary estimates’ which are introduced by the Government to amend departmental spending, typically in February.
A final resort for Conservative MPs would be to vote with Opposition MPs on a motion tabled under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act that they don’t have confidence in the Government (not the much weaker censure motion of the sort Jeremy Corbyn has threatened). They could decide to vote against the Government at the first vote to put pressure on the Government to change its approach, and then support them at the confidence vote at the end of fourteen days provided they have done so.
But the effectiveness of this tactic would depend on whether the Government believed it needed to change course to win the second vote – and even a General Election might still not resolve the question of how to move forward on Brexit.
Under the Article 50 process the UK is set to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 with or without a deal. The fewer legitimate opportunities the Government gives Parliament to express its view on the way forward on Brexit, the bigger the risk it will have to resort to guerrilla tactics which threaten either no deal planning or financial stability. Government could avoid those risks by allowing Parliament its say.