Following the spectacular defeat of the Government’s proposed Brexit deal, discussions about how Parliament might find a way to take control of the process have gained currency.
The most prominent plan – put forward by Conservative MP Nick Boles and a cross-party group of former ministers – relies on mobilising the apparent parliamentary majority against a no deal Brexit to establish a legislative ‘insurance policy’. This would compel the Government to ask the EU to extend Article 50 if it can’t persuade MPs to agree to its own deal.
The Boles plan involves two steps to be taken once the Government returns to the Commons with its ‘Plan B’ motion:
- To persuade MPs to pass an amendment which would temporarily suspend certain parliamentary rules (Standing Orders). This would allow these backbenchers to take control of parliamentary time in the Commons, probably just for a day.
- To require the Commons to use that time to consider a new bill. That bill - in its latest iteration to be tabled by Labour MP Yvette Cooper - would compel the Prime Minister to request an extension of the Article 50 deadline until December 2019 if the House of Commons hasn’t approved the Government’s deal by 11 February.
Boles has now withdrawn his initial proposal to ask the Liaison Committee (made up of select committee chairs) to come up with an alternative plan for Brexit. While it would not be unprecedented for the House to ask a Committee to draw up a bill, the Liaison Committee has made it clear it is not willing to take on this role.
The House of Commons can choose to conduct its business however it chooses, including by suspending parliamentary rules. And it is possible to pass legislation in 24 hours. But there are three significant hurdles to overcome for the plan to work.
First, the amendment to the Government’s motion will need to be selected for a vote by the Speaker. It is most likely that the amendment will be to the ‘business motion’ which establishes how the subsequent debate on the Government’s motion is to be conducted.
The Speaker recently took an expansive view of the amendments to business motions, in allowing Dominic Grieve’s amendment to the business motion governing the last ‘meaningful vote’. It seems likely he will prove similarly indulgent of this backbench effort.
Second, the amendment will need to be agreed to by the House.
Third, the backbenchers will need to attract the support of a majority of MPs to get the bill through the Commons. And then they will need to pull off the same trick in the Lords. Assuming the Government opposes the bill, it is likely to need support of the Opposition frontbench to pass.
While the bill would buy both the Government and Parliament more time and defer a no deal exit, time alone will not resolve the current impasse in Parliament. Although the majority of MPs do not want the UK to leave the EU without a deal, the only way to actually prevent a no deal exit is for them to vote in favour of a negotiated deal or for the Government to revoke Article 50 completely.
And even if the draft bill gets over these legislative hurdles, the UK cannot unilaterally extend Article 50. While the Prime Minister can ask for an extension, this will require the consent of all other 27 member states of the EU, which is far from guaranteed, particularly if the extension is for more than a few months.
Clearly there is a plausible route, albeit one with a number of hurdles, that would give backbench MPs the chance to take control of the Brexit process. However, it would only take Parliament so far, and would leave MPs nowhere closer to setting on a positive way forward in the Brexit process.
Since this comment was published, the Government has tabled its motion and backbenchers have tabled a variety of amendments. See our analysis on Parliament's next steps on Brexit.