MPs can stop no deal. Bercow is right

by Nick Kent | 29.05.2019

Some commentators claim that if Theresa May’s successor wants to force a no deal Brexit, MPs can’t stop them.  John Bercow, the Speaker, has now dismissed that saying it would be “unimaginable” for Parliament to be sidelined.  He’s right; MPs can stop a no-deal Brexit.

Last week Tory leadership favourite Boris Johnson declared that the UK would leave on October 31, deal or no deal. The highly regarded Institute for Government said that a new prime minister intent on leaving without a deal could not be stopped.

It is important to understand that the overwhelming majority of MPs are opposed to a no-deal Brexit. If they remain opposed it will be hard for any government to ignore them.

There are several routes available to MPs.  

They can pass a motion objecting to no deal, as they did in March. Although that wouldn’t be legally binding, it would carry moral force.  

More powerfully, they could pass or amend legislation to force the prime minister to ask for extra time as they did last month. To do this, they had to get control of parliamentary business by amending a government business motion. They could do this again but only if a relevant business motion was tabled.  Or they could use time granted to the opposition parties for debate provided ministers don’t block such debates.

If these approaches failed, MPs could seek an emergency debate under Standing Order 24.  Such a motion is usually in neutral language and not binding. But would the Speaker allow a motion which placed a specific duty on ministers, for example to table legislation or a motion on no deal? Is that what Bercow meant when he said in March that the “opportunities [with SO24] are fuller than has traditionally been acknowledged or taken advantage of by [MPs]”?

The nuclear option for Tory MPs would be to support a no confidence motion in the government. The Chancellor of the Exchequer drew attention to that in an interview on Sunday, implying that he might vote against a Tory government headed by a no-deal supporter.  If such a motion passed there would be 14 days to see if anybody could secure a vote of confidence. If that failed, a general election would follow.

Short of that, MPs could disrupt the business of the House, including refusing to vote for any “supply Bills”. That  would cause the government to run out of money at some point. Although this would provoke chaos, it is not clear that ministers would need to get Commons approval for a new supply Bill before October 31.

One of the problems for a no-deal prime minister is the EU has hinted that, if the UK went for no deal, it would offer a three-month “technical extension” to alleviate the worst effects.  It would be difficult for a prime minister to decline that given business would want it. What would the markets do to sterling during this period?

There is also the possibility of court challenges. As May found out over triggering Article 50, ignoring due process can cause judges to intervene.

Forcing through a no-deal Brexit would be messy, controversial, and would require ministers to disengage from Parliament, perhaps by stopping it from sitting for a period (prorogation). Such an approach goes against our constitutional practice, would be undemocratic and would break the Conservative Party.  

If 400 MPs want to stop a no deal Brexit, as they said they did in March, they can.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

7 Responses to “MPs can stop no deal. Bercow is right”

  • If the EU decides not to offer an extension then we would leave with a no deal. No amount of motions or legal challenges would matter because the legal agreement within Article 50 would be to leave with no deal if an agreed deal is not in place.
    I understand the reasoning behind the EU wanting us to accept a deal but they are now in a position where they will need to decide whether or not to proceed with this cat and mouse game of trying to keep us in the EU and suffer the consequences of the Brexit party suffocating the EU from within and destroying the whole European Project.
    In terms of politicians trying to prevent a no deal, have they not learned the lessons of the last two elections. If they proceed with this course of action they will be removed at the next General Election and replaced by Brexiteers.
    If the EU are serious about wanting a deal they will be required to remove the backstop which will offer a better opportunity of the deal going through.
    The Country will not settle until the democratic decision to leave the EU and become wholly independent has been achieved.
    It should also be remembered that this issue has been caused through consecutive Governments leading us into a Federal Europe without consulting the British people if that was what they agreed with. So it is not the Brexiteers that have caused this mess but the Westminister Elite and now they will be accountable to the people.

  • What on earth is the point of MPs debating and voting on something if the government is under no obligation to take any notice? Who decides what is a ‘meaningful vote’ and what isn’t? This is a ridiculous situation that renders MPs virtually powerless to insist on the government doing anything that it doesn’t want to do.
    Until the recent Brexit debates I had no idea that this situation existed and it flies in the face of democracy!

  • There is no doubt that the Brexit issue has revealed all sorts of problems with the way our democracy functions. Nick Kent’s article identifies a very serious one, but there are many others. So reform is required of the UK’s parliamentary system; the need for a written constitution must also be considered including the procedures for holding referenda.

    I would hope a well that when the dust has settled on the Brexit issue, a public enquiry will be held to examine the whole way in which the 2016 referendum was organized, the financial aspects, the use of personal data extracted from entities such as Facebook ( the role of Cambridge Analytic ) and why not, the role of the media in disseminating fake news.

  • I’m ignoring Alan’s points as they rely on the outcome of a corrupt and discredited referendum, but feel strongly that David is correct that there should be an enquiry into the conduct of that referendum. Given that the findings are highly likely to confirm it involved chicanery and misdeeds there is no question that we should proceed in line with its results but should rather revoke Article 50 and pause the whole process until the results of that enquiry are published. It will then be clear whether this was the true “will of the people” or the will of the elite masquerading as men of the people.

  • Having followed all of the Brexit saga since the beginning and having spoken to, or heard the views of, a great number of Brexiteers, I have yet to hear a good, valid and logical reason for leaving the EU. I hear much emotional nonsense about being free – whatever that may mean -, about avoiding the expense whilst forgetting or ignoring all of the income drawn from the EU, about being away from the control of those foreigners whilst totally ignoring the influence and input which we have had in the EU over all these years and many distortions of the truth which try to blame the EU for our own misinterpretation of the rules or sheer ineptitude. Is Brussels responsible for the stupid and dangerous new pedestrian traffic lights being inflicted upon the nation ? Is Strasbourg responsible for the ridiculous time taken to implement our roadworks ? Why are the streets of Dublin very clean and ours filthy ? Is the EU guilty of the appallingly poor distribution of wealth in this country ? I rest my case.

  • Replying to Peter. When MPs voted to trigger A50, ‘No Deal’ was not on the horizon (or should I say the table?). The Leave campaigners had “promised” us all a comprehensive free trade deal as an alternative to EU membership. We’ve come to know that they had not even a sketch of a plan; but never for a moment did they suggest that we might leave the EU without a withdrawal agreement. And the 2017 g.e. manifestos of both the Cons and Labour were addressed to the terms on which we’d withdraw.