18 January 2019

While the ‘Nick Boles plan' to wrest control of the Brexit process from Government could work, Dr Hannah White argues that it will merely delay rather than solve the Brexit impasse.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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Boles has now withdrawn his initial proposal to ask the Liaison Committee (made up of select committee chairs) to come up with an alternative plan for Brexit.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 Boles plan is feasible within the parameters of parliamentary procedure

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.

The draft bill will not make up for lost time

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.


If the Government whips Tory MPs to oppose any Bill emerging from the Boles led process to amend the business motion I can't help thinking it would split the Cabinet in half based on comments by the likes of David gauke, Amber Rudd and Philip Hammond. At that point the game really would be up for the PM. So I wonder how hard she will choose to oppose any such Bill if the neat procedural trick goes through.

Thanks for the very informative article. I declare that I voted Remain.
For me the problem is that parliamentarians do not seem to realise that they seeded their parliamentary sovereignty (over whether or not to leave the EU) to the people in a referendum.
All sorts of excuses have been devised for trying to reverse the people's decision, or for getting them to decide again in another referendum. The people were apparently misinformed in the first referendum etc etc. In fact these arguments don't hold much water. The whole political establishment and media were for "Remain", but remain lost. Given that the establishment was for Remain, the defeat in the referendum was actually very significant indeed and the major political parties pledged to honour the outcome of the referendum in the last General Election.
The Parliamentarians like to think of themselves as honourable and even refer to each other as Honourable (or Right Honourable), but many have not behaved honourably over Brexit. Parliamentarians need to honour the referendum result as they said they would. When they are given a meaningful vote, such as on Mrs May's negotiated Withdrawal Agreement, they should do their job honourably, scrutinize it, and then they should cast their vote on the deal in front on them. In the case of the Withdrawal Agreement many of them used their vote to secure a different objective (such as remain, or to try to collapse the government). This was not honourable. In my view parliamentarians were entitled (honourably) to reject the deal and require changes because of the back stop provision, or the large amount of money involved, but NOT because they wanted to stay in Europe. That decision has already been made by the people. They need to get over it!

It would be wrong, perverse and dishonourable, for the people that have broken our system of governance by behaving dishonourably in the first place, now to claim that they have to seize control of the Brexit process from the elected government. This is not a banana republic.

Are you sure?
The government ' ceded control' in referendums - for Wales and Scottish indepedance then vetoed the result.
Nothin new.

Totally agree with your comment. I also voted Remain, but accept the Leavers ‘won’ and that a large majority of Parliament promised to implement the decision. As the latter consistently voted down the withdrawal ‘deal’ and rendered inter-party negotiations impossible, often for their own nefarious reasons, they have no grounds to now complain the default result, of a ‘no deal’, automatically follows. Undermining such a major democratic vote, for whatever reason, sets a very dangerous precedent. What next, a future opposition party whips up the media, rent-a-mob on London streets, and minor parties (hoping to use discontent to pursue their own ends like regional independence) to undermine whichever of an elected government’s policies they disagree with?