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Analysis

Bravo to MPs for stopping May running down the clock

by Hugo Dixon | 09.01.2019

In the series of parliamentary skirmishes between MPs and the government, today’s could turn out to be the most significant. It doesn’t just stop the prime minister running down the clock in the next few weeks. It may set a precedent that puts MPs rather than the executive in the driving seat for the rest of the Brexit battle.

Parliament, not the prime minister, is sovereign. Woe betide her if she forgets that.

A key amendment passed by MPs this afternoon means Theresa May will have to produce a Plan B within three “sitting days” if they reject her deal next Tuesday, as seems likely. Given that the House of Commons won’t “sit” next Friday, Saturday or Sunday, the deadline is January 21.

That is a big acceleration of the previous timetable, which gave the prime minister three weeks, or until February 5, to come up with a new plan. Given that we are due to quit the EU on March 29, every day matters.

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The amendment doesn’t guarantee that MPs will debate the Plan B rapidly, as Jacob Rees-Mogg, the hardline Brexiter, pointed out. But if the government tries any more monkey business, Parliament will further tighten the thumbscrews.

Nor does the amendment ensure that May will produce a good Plan B. But, thanks to another important amendment last month, MPs can amend that plan as well.

It’s too early to know what MPs might do. But one option could be to call for a vote on whether we should crash out of the EU without a deal. A simple motion on that could produce a thumping majority against “no deal” – reinforcing last night’s amendment to the Finance Bill which sought to make it more difficult for the government to take the country over the abyss.

But perhaps as important as today’s amendment was the precedent it may have set. After all, this was an amendment to the “business of the house motion” – setting out how the House of Commons should examine the government’s deal. The speaker hinted that MPs would be able to amend future business of the house motions.

This potentially gives MPs a new tool to bend the executive to their will – something that will be hugely valuable if they decide there needs to be a People’s Vote. As a last resort, if the prime minister is unwilling to cooperate, MPs can just take over control of the parliamentary timetable and push through their own legislation to pave the way for such a referendum. Any sensible prime minister will come to heel long before that.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

4 Responses to “Bravo to MPs for stopping May running down the clock”

  • Thanks for keeping us so well briefed on the Brexit debacle.
    Things seem to be coming to a head at last, and certainly not before time.
    Looking forward to high noon at the Dispatch box in the coming weeks.

  • Looks like the Government just want to get to 29th March by running down the clock, and getting out of the EU with any withdrawal agreement. Any one will do.
    Even if we must leave the EU, surely its best to negotiate from the inside. Once we’ve left, we will just be a third country, and negotiating from the outside must surely be more onerous.

  • This could be an important precedent…when our MPs realise that they can actually achieve things and they are not just fodder for the government.
    The braying of the Brexit Tories was a shameful display of childish behaviour. I sincerely hope that they will get their just rewards at the next election.

  • If he Prime Minister is given only 3 days to come up with a plan B it will really test her level of preparation. If she had not spent so long producing silly slogans like Brexit means Brexit, and drawing imaginary red lines all over the negotiations, she might have given herself time to come up with some better suggestions. The best one of course is staying in the EU.