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16 January 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 1:45pm

By rejecting Theresa May’s deal, are MPs closer to stopping Brexit?

The government warned that Remainers could thwart Brexit if it lost.

By Anoosh Chakelian

In the build-up to the Brexit vote, Theresa May and her government tried to scare Brexiteer MPs into backing her deal by warning that Brexit could otherwise be thwarted. Stories about plots by Tory pro-European former ministers like Dominic Grieve, Oliver Letwin and Nick Boles to seize control of the parliamentary timetable with the help of the Speaker John Bercow were fed heavily into the Sunday and Monday papers, in an attempt to whip up fear of Remainer wreckers.

This scaremongering didn’t work – and May’s deal was rejected by 230 votes. So does this mean those Remainer MPs’ plans to control the agenda in order to control Brexit will go ahead?

Well, May has to table a “Plan B” motion on Monday, and she’s said this will be amendable. This means that other plans – a second referendum, changing the political declaration to seek Norway Plus, or extending Article 50 – have the opportunity to vie for a Commons majority when MPs come to debate and vote on May’s Plan B. Even if MPs pass changes to the deal, the withdrawal agreement is closed – it cannot be changed legally unless the EU agrees.

At the moment, this doesn’t mean MPs will overturn parliamentary convention to prioritise government business over backbench business – it simply means the Prime Minister is handing MPs the opportunity to steer the next phase of Brexit by making her motion amendable. Besides, Labour would want to be wary about overturning convention in this way. It doesn’t look like the electorate is likely to return a majority government any time soon, so MPs would probably want to be cautious about setting precedents that remove power from even a minority government’s hands so completely.

But even with the ability to steer May’s Plan B, MPs are nowhere near stopping Brexit. Neither the government or opposition want to stop Brexit, and there’s no parliamentary majority to stop Brexit – there are only small numbers backing a second referendum, let alone reversing Brexit altogether.

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Yes, they could decide to extend Article 50 but EU members would have to unanimously agree to this, and they would probably only accept it if the UK needed time for something concrete, like a general election or another referendum, or if a plausible deal with enough MP support was on the horizon, rather than to simply drag out discussions. There’s also a question of how long it could be extended for, considering the EU Parliament elections take place in May.

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What’s more likely is no deal – or that parliament’s divided factions rally around Norway Plus and somehow get trade deal enthusiast Brexiteers and second referendum advocates onside (they currently oppose it), plus the DUP (whose Westminster leader Nigel Dodds opposes it if it means the backstop is unchanged in the withdrawal agreement). So basically hard Brexit and soft Brexit are more likely than no Brexit.

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