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5 June 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 12:54pm

Can Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin’s bill really stop no-deal Brexit?

By Patrick Maguire

With ten days before the end of the United Kingdom’s Article 50 extension and parliament deadlocked, can MPs stop a no-deal Brexit? That’s the hope of Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Tory grandee Oliver Letwin, who have tabled legislation that would require Theresa May to request a further extension beyond 12 April. 

The bill, which will be laid on Thursday, would compel the Prime Minister to propose an Article 50 extension – for a period of her choosing – that would be amended, debated and voted on by MPs. Were an extension of a different length proposed by the EU, the Commons would repeat the process. 

In a characteristic break from convention, John Bercow, the Speaker, has said all four parliamentary stages of the bill could be completed on Thursday. In theory, it could be law by the end of the week.

But that isn’t to say that it will succeed on its own terms and actually stop a no-deal exit (even if we leave aside, for a moment, the fact that an extension merely extends the cliff edge rather than removing it entirely). Cooper says that MPs have a responsibility to try and prevent the UK crashing out “even though we are right up against the deadline”. 

Her and Letwin’s bill, however, does not even come close to eliminating the possibility of it happening by accident. Indeed, there is an argument that, by design, it makes it more likely: there are only six sitting days left before 12 April, three of which will be gone before such time that the bill becomes law. That, to put it bluntly, is not enough time for multiple rounds of parliamentary debate and shuttle diplomacy. 

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The emphasis of the legislation, unsurprisingly, is on parliament – which would be empowered to go over May’s head to set a date of its own choosing if the will of the Commons could coalesce around one. The wrangling over the length of the extension provided for in previous iterations of the bill, as well as the indicative votes process, suggest that will be much more difficult than those behind this plan hope. Indeed, Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, said yesterday that it was too early to consider any legislative mechanisms to prevent no-deal. 

Yet graver pitfalls are to be found in what the bill does not provide for – namely a backstop provision to stop no deal if, as could well be likely, the EU refuses to grant a long extension. Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, said this morning that a delay of this kind would need “strong justification” – one would be hard pressed to find a majority of MPs who could give you one.

Nor is there any mention of a scenario where the EU imposes conditions on an extension. Cooper herself suggests that any wrangling under the provisions of the bill will be taking place “right up against the deadline”, and as such this is a significant – and, for those in parliament who wish to stop no deal – worrying omission.

In those circumstances, the only sure-fire to prevent no deal would be a revocation of Article 50, which, unlike requesting an extension, is a unilateral process. The bill neither mentions nor makes provision for revocation, unlike the SNP MP Joanna Cherry’s proposal to that effect (defeated in last night’s indicative votes by 292 votes to 191). As much as MPs never pass up an opportunity to disagree with the executive – and each other – at moments of crisis, any “control” Cooper and Letwin secure for them on this front will be illusory.