In a bid to block a no deal Brexit, Conservative MP Dominic Grieve and Labour MP Margaret Beckett tabled amendments to motions which approve ‘estimates’ for the Departments for International Development, Education, Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. This paves the way for a Supply Bill (which puts the departmental spending plans into law) which Parliament then needs to pass and cannot amend.
Parliament needs to pass the estimates to give the Government the authority to spend money and, under the Commons’ Standing Orders, they need to be passed by 5 August 2019. If the Grieve/Beckett amendments pass, then Parliamentary approval of the estimates would be conditional on the UK leaving the EU either with a withdrawal agreement approved by Parliament or with Parliament having approved leaving without a deal.
A no deal Brexit, without Parliamentary consent, would mean these departments could not spend money after the scheduled Brexit date of 31 October.
If the amendments pass then the Government has to incorporate them into the primary legislation. This then makes it legally binding on the Government.
These amendments are designed to prevent a no deal Brexit without Parliamentary approval by making the government unable to function in those circumstances. They do not, in themselves, rule out no deal – nor do they oblige the Government to seek an extension (and the UK Parliament cannot of course oblige the EU to agree one) to Article 50.
If the amendments passed then the Government could gamble on the assumption that MPs would, should the Government press ahead with no deal, act quickly to turn the spending taps back on once they saw the impact of those four departments being unable to spend money.
This move ups the stakes. MPs have previously targeted the Finance Bill (back in January 2019), but they only placed limits on the Government’s ability to amend UK tax law to ensure it made sense after Brexit – rather than limiting its financial powers in any way. These amendments, therefore, go much further.
Over the course of the Brexit process, we have seen a breakdown in the relationship between the Government and Parliament. That MPs are willing to propose this kind of step demonstrates the extent of that collapse in trust.
This is the best chance to force the Government to rethink – but is probably too soon to get enough support
With the identity of the next prime minister still undecided, this move may seem premature – but it is a reflection of how limited the opportunities are for MPs to stop a PM intent on no deal once the new PM is in place. Once the estimates are approved, the Commons will not have another chance to target the Government’s purse strings: the next Finance Bill is not tabled until after 31 October and the next Estimates until the New Year.
Nor can MPs bank on other legislative vehicles to amend in an attempt to tie the Government's hands. There is virtually no new legislation in Parliament at the moment; outstanding Brexit related legislation is on a shelf pending a new session and the Government thinks it can manage a no deal Brexit through workarounds rather than any new legislation.
But MPs still don’t know who is going to be the next prime minister. On 12 June, MPs tried to act to rule out no deal – by taking control of the order paper – but they couldn’t get the numbers as ten Conservative rebels were cancelled out by around 20 Labour MPs who either opposed or abstained on the vote.
Amending the estimates in the way proposed now is a much more aggressive move than June’s failed approach. Its chances of succeeding are correspondingly lower as many Conservative MPs may still want to give a new PM the benefit of the doubt.