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If MPs have a workable plan to stop no deal, they need to present it now

5 min read

If the next prime minister decides to leave the EU without a deal at the end of October, there is a limited amount the Commons can do about it, writes Tony Grew 


The much-anticipated resignation is on hold. The beauty contest for potential successors is on hiatus. The Speaker isn't going anywhere. "I've never said anything about going in July of this year," he told The Guardian last week.

John Bercow will have been in office for ten years on 22nd June, having overseen four parliaments so far. MPs who want to block Brexit, or oppose no deal, will be heartened by the Speaker's view that "now is a time in which momentous events are taking place and there are great issues to be resolved and, in those circumstances,, it doesn't seem to me sensible to vacate the chair".

The Speaker, in a spirited display of do as I say and not as I do, chose a speech in the United States rather than the House of Commons to pronounce that it was "unimaginable" that MPs would be side-lined in the next stage of Brexit. His latest policy announcement has significance, but not as much as he may think.

When Theresa May announced her resignation as prime minister, it appears her withdrawal agreement died with her premiership. The Commons was given ample opportunity to pass it. As it stands if the next prime minister decides to leave the EU without a deal at the end of October, and that is the stated policy of several leadership candidates, there is a limited amount the Commons can do about it.

It could well be that a new Conservative leader will unite the party, leading them in coalition with the DUP to pass the withdrawal agreement that eluded Mrs May. Perhaps, but a new leader no matter who they are does not bring with them a unified party. A Boris Johnson administration will face fierce opposition from the start. Any new leader who tries for a softer Brexit will run into similar problems with their own backbenchers. For all the talk of a second referendum or a revocation of Article 50, there isn't a Commons majority for either.

It is of course open to MPs to table opposition day motions demanding that no deal be taken off the table, but it is for the government to decide to grant time for those debates. The backbench business committee may use its time to grant a debate, but their motions are designed not to be binding – the House merely considers the issue.

The same goes for emergency debates under standing order no.24. It would take some quite serious constitutional manoeuvring to get the Commons to a stage where it passes a legally binding instruction to the government not to leave the EU without a deal. Any changes to standing orders, for example, would require that elusive Commons creature, a majority.

There are complications quite apart from Parliament. Any leadership candidate who says they will renegotiate with Brussels is ignoring the fact the EU has already dismissed any attempt to try to reopen the withdrawal agreement. MPs may demand that no deal be taken off the table but have not offered any other credible options.

A new prime minister may try guerrilla tactics. One option is to extend the current session until after the UK leaves. It could be argued that the Commons has created this mess, self-indulgently voting down the agreement while refusing to come up with a solution of its own. MPs had their chance to influence proceedings and they failed. Now it is up to the government to deliver Brexit.

MPs would immediately retaliate with a vote of no confidence in the government. Labour may say they want a general election, but the Euro elections have spooked MPs from both the main parties. There is a vague argument about the two-week waiting period set out in our old nemesis the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, but the idea of a minority government led by Corbyn or the Tories putting forward their third leader in a matter of months seems equally unlikely.

As things stand there is limited parliamentary time and few if any parliamentary options in which to stop no deal. We can expect summer recess to begin in the third week of July – just long enough for the new PM to take their first PMQs. Whether the Commons returns for a September sitting is a matter for the government. MPs could vote against a recess until October, but without that elusive majority they will sit through the summer and achieve nothing.

The Conservative party conference ends on October 2nd. The country will then be four weeks from exit. If MPs have a workable plan to stop no deal, they need to present it and gather majority support for it before the new Conservative leader is elected. It's hard to imagine a worse scenario for a new Tory prime minister to inherit the keys to No.10. Whoever wins, good luck.

*****

Fans of parliamentary treatise Erskine May won't have long to wait until it is finally free for all. The first ever online version will be released this summer, according to a tweet from Digiminster, aka Matt Stutely, director of software engineering for Parliament. It's been a long time coming. While Erskine May can be accessed digitally through the intranet, it has not been more widely available until now. The offline version of "the eponymous guide to parliamentary practice and procedure" – a book – costs a cool £329.99. Its new availability is another welcome step in opening up Parliament for everyone.

*****

The tributes to Lord Spicer, the former chairman of the 1922 committee and founder of the ERG, have united all parts of the Tory party after his death last week, from David Cameron to Priti Patel. It is, as Daniel Hannan noted, his politeness, courtesy and lack of ego that so many admired. "Michael's secret was that the was a radical dressed in Establishment clothing," Hannan wrote. "He grasped how valuable it is in a world of blabbermouths and serial leakers, to know how to be known to be discreet." Some lessons there for all of us.

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Read the most recent article written by Tony Grew - Parliamentary Possibilities

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