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ANALYSIS: Could the Yvette Cooper bid to delay Article 50 be the 'last roll of the dice' to scupper Brexit?

Emilio Casalicchio

5 min read

As the Brexit clock ticks down to 29 March, campaigners are running out of chances to force a second EU referendum. A major Commons showdown on Tuesday could prove decisive as long as key pieces of the constitutional puzzle fall into place.

A cross-party plan to block a no-deal departure could set a Brexit ball rolling that might halt the process for good. The Commons amendment tabled by Labour MP Yvette Cooper and Tory MP Nick Boles would allow backbenchers to seize control of the parliamentary timetable in a bid to delay Brexit. It would push all Government business aside on 5 February for a bill that would give ministers a deadline of 26 February to get a Brexit deal through the Commons. If a deal is not reached, the bill would give MPs a vote on extending the Article 50 process, avoiding a no-deal Brexit outcome.

Pro-EU campaigners argue an extension would buy more time to haggle over a second public vote and, crucially, to pile pressure on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to swing behind their calls. The plot would also scupper a key negotiating card Theresa May can wave in front of the EU: That the country is willing to take a major risk and leave without a deal at all.

But the amendment, which is tacked onto the motion tabled by the Prime Minister promising a Brexit plan B (after her deal was overwhelmingly defeated earlier this month), faces a big hurdle before it reaches the Commons. Speaker John Bercow, as chair of all proceedings in the House, has to decide to put it to a vote. The thinking in Westminster is that he will. He is a champion of parliamentary power and will have noted the support the plan has won from across the political divide and from numerous key figures.

But even if Bercow does select it, the numbers are looking tight. Labour is still undecided over whether it will back the amendment, even though it could satisfy the calls from Jeremy Corbyn to rule out a no-deal Brexit. Backers have been eager to win support from Tory MPs who are pro-Brexit but fearful of a no-deal departure. One Government source told PoliticsHome the numbers could even come down to single figures, with the sum of Tory rebels supporting it matched by pro-Brexit Labour MPs who will fight any delay. Whips have been working hard over the weekend to convince Tories not to back it, out of fear it could destroy the negotiating strategy with the EU. The proposals could “drive a coach and horses through Brexit,” the government source admitted. A pro-Brexit former minister agrees. “It could stop Brexit altogether,” they said. “If you have a majority in parliament which is more powerful than the executive then it destroys the Government’s programme.”

Some pro-Remain figures are blunt about the importance of the showdown. “It’s the last roll of the dice to stop Brexit or get a referendum or whatever” a senior figure tells PoliticsHome. “If this doesn’t happen we are going to leave. Anyone who says otherwise is fibbing.” The thinking among some pro-EU campaigners is that the Cooper/Boles amendment will secure an Article 50 extension of three months. Hopes would then turn to adding a further extension, which would see Britain take part in MEP elections in May and confirm to the EU that a no-deal Brexit is impossible, handing all the negotiating power to Brussels.

Other pro-EU figures realise the importance of the votes on Tuesday but insist there are likely to be future chances to scupper Brexit. “It would be difficult if we didn't get some resolution from the House that we want no-deal off the table,” one MP tells PoliticsHome. “It’s true that this is the last certain motion that we know is timetabled, after which everything is in the hands of the Government.” Indeed, a wealth of legislation is coming down the line to deal with all aspects of Brexit, as well as any further vote on the final deal if the PM does get any concessions from Brussels, but the Cooper/Boles plan is the only visible chance for MPs to actually legislate away a no-deal. The MP adds: “People do have to grow some and actually vote on this stuff. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road and thinking there’s some other opportunity over the rainbow somewhere else.” Boles himself - who does not want to block Brexit - told the BBC that the Commons showdown was “probably the only motion of its kind that's going to be amendable”. But another pro-EU MP was more confident that any future legislation on Brexit will be “amended to hell” if hopes are scuppered on Tuesday.

Even if the amendment is called and it passes, a bill will have to fight its way through all the Commons stages as well as the House of Lords to have any hope of forcing a Brexit delay. Backers of the amendment are taking nothing for granted. One told PoliticsHome the Commons is likely to pass the legislation if the amendment wins the day, but noted that tackling the bill will be long, hard work and “majorities flake under pressure”.

The next moment of truth will come when MPs find out on Tuesday morning which amendments will be put to the vote. After that, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will open the debate on the ‘neutral’ Plan B motion tabled by Theresa May, and the PM herself will close the Commons chat after a mammoth six and a half hours. After that, the future of Brexit itself - and the chances of a possible second referendum - could lie in the hands of MPs.

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