What would Parliament do if faced with a PM determined to leave the EU?

Backers of the two Tory leadership hopefuls have divergent theories about how MPs would act.


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What will Parliament do when faced with a Prime Minister who is determined to leave the European Union, whether with or without a deal? That's the question that really divides supporters of Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson.

The Hunt school of thought is that Parliament will thwart a no deal Brexit and pursuing one means an early election before Brexit is resolved and the defeat of the Conservative Party, which would lose votes to the Brexit party and the Liberal Democrats, and seats to practically everybody. The problem with Hunt's thesis is while it may be true, it's not clear when this Parliament will ever voluntarily leave the European Union. Privately, there are enough Labour MPs who want a deal for it to pass but it is far from certain that they will ever actually vote for it. That means an election with Brexit unresolved - but at the end of the parliament rather than the summer, what one Cabinet ally of Johnson dubs the "death by a thousand cuts"  option.  So what about Johnson's approach?

The Johnson school of thought is that when push comes to shove, Parliament will never take decisive action to stop no deal. And the thing is, the Johnson thesis isn't necessarily wrong. It's important to understand that it wasn't Parliament which stopped no deal in March. It was Theresa May. By the time the backbench alliance of MPs had found a mechanism to seek a delay and watered it down enough to reassure nervous Labour rebels, time had, actually, run out. May had already sought an extension and there was no provision in the Cooper Bill to deal with a Prime Minister requesting an extension of a minute's length or otherwise following the letter but not the spirit of the law. That's not because Yvette Cooper and Co weren't alive to the possibility, but because when they tried to pass something with teeth it couldn't find a majority. Those same Labour MPs who Hunt can't quite rely on to pass a deal also can't necessarily be relied upon to stop no deal - or, at least, to accurately judge when the eleventh hour actually is. They miscalculated in March and were rescued by a sympathetic Prime Minister, and not enough of them seem to have understood that. 

The same dynamic played itself out with Jeremy Corbyn's recent attempt to take no deal off the table. There's a real possibility that Johnson's gamble will come off for him. But what if Parliament gets its act together and moves to enforce an automatic delay in the event of no deal? Then we're in election territory. And Hunt's problem is that he cannot convincingly say he can resolve Brexit this side of election and has just two weeks to convince Conservative members that he, not Johnson, is the better bet for a pre-Brexit election that, whether it comes this year or in 2022, may be inevitable. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.