Is Dominic Grieve losing his touch? The Conservative MP’s latest bid to thwart a no-deal Brexit has fallen at the first hurdle. With emergency Northern Ireland devolution legislation back in the Commons this afternoon, John Bercow has not selected an amendment that would have prevented the next prime minister from proroguing parliament in September and October.
Grieve had intended to amend today’s bill – which further delays the deadline by which ministers must call a Stormont election – to give a legal guarantee that the Commons could be recalled to consider, debate and amend fortnightly progress reports on the government’s efforts to restore Northern Ireland’s moribund power-sharing executive and assembly.
As with the last of his schemes to enable MPs to stop a no-deal – an amendment, a vote on which was also blocked by Bercow, that would have stopped government departments from spending money unless parliament actively consented to a no-deal – Grieve’s plan was less concerned with the meat of the legislation itself than it was with giving MPs opportunities to impose their will on an executive determined to leave the EU without an agreement. Now that is has failed, the legal path to progrogation remains clear to a prime minister sufficiently motivated to take it – though the politics are still tricky.
The Speaker’s decision to block a second consecutive Grieve wheeze underlines a risk that has been given less consideration that it deserves by those MPs who believe that, when push comes to shove, they will be able to stop no-deal via procedural chicanery. While Bercow is by temperament and track record sympathetic to their cause, he cannot be relied upon to facilitate every plan to give MPs a vote on preventing a no-deal Brexit without fail.
That ultimately means the chances of MPs seizing control of the legislative timetable to prevent a no-deal Brexit, or making life sufficiently difficult for the government that it is ultimately dissuaded from pursuing one, are much slimmer than many had hoped and anticipated.
Bercow has nonetheless thrown opponents of no-deal a scrap of good news. Separate Grieve amendments requiring fortnightly oral statements from ministers on the progress of power-sharing talks, and vote should on them, have been selected, and are likely to pass. Though some way short of a legal bar on prorogation, the hope on the opposition benches is that the statements will at the very least make the politics of suspending parliament more difficult, as they would require the Commons to be sitting – and potentially offer opponents of no-deal a procedural avenue to seize control of the parliamentary agenda.
In the words of one opposition whip, however, it would be “a bit of a reach” for MPs to pin their hopes on that. In reality, the legislation will pass with Grieve and his allies in the same place as they started – one with no clear route to stopping, rather than merely dissuading, an executive determined to push through a no-deal Brexit from getting what it wants.