MPs have now voted to prevent a new prime minister from proroguing (suspending) Parliament at the end of October. MPs passed amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill which require the House of Commons to be recalled – if it is not already sitting – to consider reports on progress towards restoring power-sharing arrangements in Stormont.
MPs opposed to a no deal exit wanted to guarantee in law that Parliament would be sitting in the Autumn, giving itself an opportunity to express its view in the run up to the 31 October Brexit deadline.
This pre-emptive move to prevent a new prime minister from proroguing Parliament against its will shows just how far trust between the Government and Parliament has broken down – and opens up the likelihood of further parliamentary battles in a few months’ time.
The key effect of these amendments is to ensure that MPs will have a period of time in the Autumn – providing an executive has not been formed in Northern Ireland – when they must be sitting in Parliament (for at least five days at a time). Once the bill becomes law – probably next week – it will place a legal obligation on the Government to recall Parliament even if the Prime Minister has asked the Queen to prorogue Parliament and refused to begin a new session.
On its own, however, this move cannot stop no deal. The amendments do not change the no deal legal default. Under Article 50, the UK is due to leave the EU with or without a deal on 31 October. To prevent a no deal Brexit, either MPs need to approve a deal or the Government needs to request another extension or revoke Article 50. So, while the Prime Minister will now find it harder to avoid Parliament entirely in the Autumn, MPs opposed to no deal will still need to agree on, and put into place, a plan to prevent it.
One of the other aspects of the amendments passed by the Commons yesterday requires MPs to consider the Northern Ireland reports under a ‘neutral’ motion. Parliamentary rules state that neutral motions can’t be amended. But MPs have recently voted to set aside those rules on other neutral motions and, if they have an opportunity to do so, they could vote to do the same with these motions in the Autumn.
This may provide an opportunity for MPs who are attempting to stop no deal. For example, they could look to amend the motion to take control of the Commons order paper and pass legislation as they did earlier this year (when Parliament voted to require the Government to seek an extension to Article 50). However, this would not be straightforward. They would still need an opportunity to change the parliamentary rules. And amendments which seek to take control of business of the House may be ruled ‘not in order’, meaning the Speaker’s willingness to push parliamentary convention could again be tested.
Timing is also a huge challenge. While the first motion will need to be laid not long after MPs return from summer recess, they are only back for around a week before they are expected to rise again for the annual conference season. After that, there are only two and a half weeks until 31 October.
The scale of the defeat yesterday – a majority of 41 with 17 Conservatives voting against the Government – shows the potential scale of parliamentary opposition to the new Prime Minister’s plans.
Although the vote should not be read as a complete proxy to a vote against no deal – as some MPs will have found it easier to vote against prorogation than they would to vote against no deal – certain MPs are acquiring a taste for rebellion. An upcoming reshuffle could also see the four ministers who abstained yesterday return to the backbenches. The Government’s fragile majority will likely be tested again – and MPs may have given themselves an opportunity to do just that.