AT-A-GLANCE: Parliament has been suspended in the run-up to Brexit day - so what happens now?

Posted On: 
10th September 2019

With MPs locked out of the Commons for five weeks, a bill passed that could force an extension to the Brexit process, and the option of a general election rejected by MPs – what happens now?

MPs protested as the end of last night's business prompted the prorogation of Parliament until 14 October
Credit: 
PA Images

Why is Parliament suspended?

Boris Johnson has moved to suspend – or “prorogue” – Parliament until 14 October, when there will be a Queen’s Speech to open a new session. The move allows a Government to set out its new legislative agenda and is not in itself controversial. The timing of it, and the length of the suspension, however has prompted critics to accuse the PM of trying to stop opposition MPs from moving to halt a no-deal Brexit, by allowing them just two weeks in the chamber until the 31 October deadline.

What does the bill passed by opposition MPs mean?

The European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill - or 'rebel bill' - forces the Prime Minister to write to the European Union by 19 October to ask for another extension to Article 50 until 31 January 2020 if it has not successfully agreed and passed a new deal to exit on Hallowe'en with. The deadline set in the bill is the day after the conclusion of the two-day EU Council summit, where all 28 leaders including Mr Johnson will meet.

Why did opposition MPs reject an election?

After months of opposition parties calling for an election and the Government denying one was needed, both switched sides in late August. While ministers argued a new poll could give them a Commons majority, therefore allowing them to finally get Brexit done, Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems - among others - said it was too risky and could inadvertently lead to no-deal.

On the one hand, they argued, Mr Johnson could, after winning the right to hold one, set a date after 31 October, which would shut down Parliament until after Britain had left the EU. They also feared that if an election  was held before then, the PM could win a mandate to pursue a no-deal exit - which they say is not worth the risk.

The rebel bill has passed, Parliament's shut for five weeks, there's no election coming up - what happens now?

Boris Johnson ignores the rebel bill

The PM has insisted that he will not ask for another extension and will instead stay true to the pledge which saw him voted Tory leader by leaving the EU “do or die” on 31 October. Such a move would however be illegal, on top of setting a massively risky precedent for heads of Government, and would surely prompt arguments on why anyone else should obey the law when the Prime Minister won't.

Former director of public prosecutions Lord MacDonald even warned that Mr Johnson could find himself charged with contempt of court, and if then convicted of it, could be sent to prison.

Boris Johnson could write a second letter

The Government’s line so far has been that they will follow the law, but will not ask for an extension. Despite the latter being exactly what is required of them to follow the law, ministers have said they will do whatever it takes to “interpret” the new rule. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Sunday: “We will adhere to the law but also this is such a bad piece of legislation … we will also want to test to the limit what it does actually lawfully require. We will look very carefully at the implications and our interpretation of it.”

One of the solutions touted in the press has been for Mr Johnson to write a second letter, effectively saying “scrap the last one, we didn’t mean it”. How that would go down with an increasingly impatient EU remains to be seen.

Boris Johnson follows the rules

Alternatively the PM might just regretfully write to Brussels asking for an extension until 31 January. The move does not guarantee success however, with French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian having threatened to veto it unless Britain comes up with some move to break the deadlock. “We are not going to do this [extend the deadline] every three months,” he added.

It is widely thought of as unlikely that the European Union will block another extension however, given the fears that Ireland has over the impact of a no-deal on its economy and on peace in Northern Ireland.

While there has been talk of the UK asking another country to block the extension, such as Hungary or Poland, the EU has consistently stood firm on carrying out Ireland's wishes in a show of unity. There is little evidence to suggest they are prepared to shift on that.

Ministers force a no-confidence vote in themselves

The Government could try to take the drastic step of holding a no-confidence vote in itself, where they would need only a simple majority to succeed, rather than the backing of two-thirds of the Commons as is required to call an election. Such a move would not only be highly unusual - in that the Government would have to try and bring down its Prime Minister, while the opposition opts to shore him up - but would be fraught with risk.

Such a vote, if it were to pass, allows a 14-day period for opposition MPs to try and form an alternative government, which could lead to them reaching a majority and taking the action of seeking an extension themselves, before holding an election.

Meanwhile The Telegraph has reported that Labour is considering its own bid to topple Mr Johnson on 22 October by ordering its MPs to vote down the Queen’s Speech the day before. Such a move relies on the PM having written the letter to Brussels and could allow Labour to take charge on their own terms. With enough Tory rebel support, they believe they could bring him down.

Boris Johnson resigns

The PM could ultimately just quit. Such a move would mean he could not fulfil his pledge to deliver Brexit by 31 October. However, it would allow him to shift the blame on to Jeremy Corbyn should he form an alternative government and ask for the extension. It would likely lead to an election, in which Mr Johnson could run on a mandate to leave without a deal, before leading the UK out on 31 January 2020. It is also risky, however, given it could result in the opposition taking over and the whole plan falling apart.

DISCLAIMER: The Government's insistence that it will leave on 31 October means there are likely to be many, many more twists and turns to unfold than those listed...