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14 March 2019

MPs may agree on asking the EU for more time. But they won’t agree on how to use it

Parliament voted for an amendment to reject no deal back in January and did so again last night. Neither vote has any force.

By Stephen Bush

When is a government not a government? That’s the philosophical question that one MP poses in my column this week.

The government cannot pass meaningful legislation, can barely pass finance bills, can’t get its flagship policy through, and now it can’t even keep all of the cabinet on board. Four pro-European cabinet ministers abstained in the House last night on a motion to reject no deal, while five cabinet ministers broke the government whip to vote for the Malthouse Compromise (an accord whereby the Conservative Party agrees to stop rowing over whether the sky is red or blue and compromise around the position that it is a pleasant paisley pattern instead). On each occasion, they were joined by a slew of junior ministers.

So who is in control? Well, nominally, parliament. But the problem is that while parliament has shown a great deal of willingness to vote in abstract against no deal – by my count, they have now done so three times – they have yet to cohere around any measure that will actually stop no deal.

Regular readers will be able to join in with the chorus by now, but it bears repeating: under the Article 50 process, when the two years are up, unless either an exit deal is ratified or Article 50 is revoked, the departing member state leaves the EU, whether with a deal or not. In addition, MPs voted to enshrine the 29 March date in British law, so it is legally protected twice over.

MPs voted for Caroline Spelman’s amendment to reject the idea of no deal back in January and did so again last night. Neither vote has any force. They voted for Yvette Cooper’s amendment to the finance bill, which won’t prevent no deal either but will limit the ability of the government to respond to a no-deal exit. They rejected another amendment by Cooper, which wouldn’t have stopped no deal but would at least have mandated the government to seek an extension to the Article 50 process to delay the moment of crisis.

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The problem is that the parliamentary alliance against no deal is dependent on a number of parties and factions and it’s difficult to see how they can reconcile. The alliance relied on taking the votes of seven Labour MPs who have today signed a cross-party amendment deploring the idea of another referendum. It relied on the support of the 11 Independent Group MPs, who are today pushing an amendment that would set out a timetable towards another referendum. It ran through the votes of 35 SNP MPs and four Plaid Cymru MPs, all of which are enjoying a rise in the polls at Labour’s expense in part due to their referendum stance and who, as a result, who cannot back any kind of Brexit deal, however soft. It wouldn’t have passed without the support of the Common Market 2.0 group, most of who are dead against another referendum.

The one thing that a majority of MPs can agree on – probably – is to ask the European Union for more time. But time for what? That’s the question that the EU27 will expect an answer to. And if MPs cannot cohere around an answer to that, they may well have no option but to fall back to the withdrawal agreement – or to the only option they have successfully put into law: a no-deal exit on 29 March 2019.