What four options do MPs have to prevent a ‘No Deal’ Brexit?

by Charlotte Adamson, Account Manager, Cicero Group

While we are in the depths of summer recess – although sadly lacking in any summer sun – the news agenda is being dominated by speculation over what could happen come Autumn. The Institute for Government yesterday published an excellent report on Parliament’s role in the final run up before the Brexit deadline of 31 October, outlining the four possible Brexit outcomes and Parliament’s ability to shape this.

A crucial point made in the report is the lack of parliamentary time before the October deadline. Whether conference recess is shorter than the usual, or even cancelled altogether, time remains incredibly tight, and MPs will likely only have one chance at getting their attempt to block no deal right.

The vote of no confidence route has been viewed as a ‘nuclear’ option by some anti-no-deal MPs. It comes with inherent risk, not least the possibility that no alternative Government can be formed, incumbent Prime Minister Boris Johnson sets an election date after the Brexit deadline and Parliament is dissolved in the final run up to 31 October. This would prevent any further ability to block no deal and impede civil servants from adequately preparing for such a scenario.

However, the reality is that for a vote of no confidence to have any chance of successfully impeding a no deal exit, it must be triggered immediately when Parliament returns from summer recess. Assuming the convention of a Thursday polling day is set aside, the latest Labour could table a motion of no confidence is Friday 5 September, which would – on the fastest possible timeline – provide for an election on the 30 October. A vote of no confidence is not, in this sense, a fall-back option, as left any later and it will come too late to make any difference.

MPs seeking to block no deal will therefore be unable to test their other options first and must return to Parliament with a decision already made on the best route forwards. For Labour, Corbyn will have had to already weigh up the options on whether, politically, now is the right time for a vote of no confidence. Seen through the lens of Number 10’s rhetoric on “the people versus the politicians”, a vote of no confidence with the aim of delaying Brexit will not go down well in either the leave voting constituencies in Labour’s heartlands or among its MPs representing those constituencies, as well as those on the Labour benches supporting a Brexit on 31 October, deal or no deal. A general election before the Brexit deadline would also require Labour to – finally – clarify its Brexit position: Corbyn may prefer to let the Tory in-fighting play out and fight an election once the impact of no deal has been felt further down the line.

On the other hand, Corbyn’s failure to call a vote of no confidence could be perceived as a missed opportunity to pursue the general election Labour states is its priority. This would be a difficult position for the official opposition to find itself in and would leave the party open to the charge of ‘bottling’ their chance to challenge the Johnson government. The decision for Labour once again demonstrates that the Conservative party is not the only party fundamentally challenged by Brexit.

If Corbyn does table a vote of no confidence, it cannot be assumed that all opposition will vote for it. In that case, it will require a greater number of Conservative MPs to back the motion. For Conservatives, voting down their own Government in its first full week with Parliament sitting would be a monumental decision to make. There are some on the Conservative backbenches that swear they are ready to block no deal at all costs. But we’ve seen before that when push comes to shove, the number willing to do so will likely be less than assumed, and in the scenario whereby other methods are yet to be tested, MPs will be more cautious in taking this nuclear approach. Factoring in the challenges of fighting a general election in the immediate aftermath of a no deal Brexit or on a Conservative manifesto that pledges another cliff edge in the near future, and the idea may not seem so appealing.

So what are the other options?

As the Institute for Government point out, MPs could take the gamble of using the procedure for a vote of no confidence under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act as a route to securing control of the order paper. By convention, when the official opposition puts down a motion of no confidence in the Government, the Government makes time for debate. This gives two opportunities for MPs to take control of parliamentary time: the first is to amend the Business of the House motion setting out the time for said debate, which will need to be passed if Government want the debate to last more than 90 minutes. The second is to amend the motion of no confidence itself, to give MPs control of the order paper on specific days.

These options are potentially easier for Conservative MPs to back, particularly as an amended motion of no confidence would be unlikely to be effective under the FTPA. However, both routes to this seem difficult for the Labour frontbench to get behind. If they table a vote of no confidence, this will need to be for the purpose of either forming a Labour government with a majority in the 14-day period, or to bring about an early election. They will therefore likely resist allowing the exercise to become purely about giving control of the order paper to backbenchers, and without their support, the numbers look a lot more challenging.

The only other legally binding option for MPs to block a no deal Brexit is to take control of the process through primary legislation via either an emergency debate under Standing Order No.24 or via the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019. Neither option is straightforward and crucially, both require the ‘no deal rebels’ to maintain a majority in Parliament for an extended period, as well as relying on the Speaker to show sympathy towards their cause and interpret either parliamentary rules or scope of amendments flexibly.

To succeed, MPs leading the charge need to plan impeccably and draft amendments and legislation forensically. To bring the broad church of MPs required to support this on side, MPs must know what they are voting for from the moment they are first asked to support taking control of the order paper and legislation requiring the Government to seek an extension of Article 50 must be kept limited: any inclusion of additional factors such as the promise of a second referendum will risk alienating groups of MPs and losing the rebels their majority. 

If Brexit has taught us one thing, it’s that while there may be a general consensus among on MPs on what they do not want, there is little consensus on what they do want. But with only two months until exit day when Parliament returns in September, MPs seeking to block no deal will only have one shot at getting it right, and must balance both competing political interests with a knife-edge majority. The odds are certainly not in their favour.

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Charlotte Adamson

Senior Account Manager

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