MPs need more than amendments if they want to stop a no-deal Brexit

The Commons majority against a cliff-edge rupture with Brussels means nothing without a majority for something else.

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Can parliament stop a no-deal Brexit? The working assumption of what you might call the mushy middle of both Labour and Conservative MPs is yes, and they have ended this parliamentary term with a preview of how they intend to spend the next trying to do just that.

Yvette Cooper, Nicky Morgan, Oliver Letwin, Hilary Benn, Nick Boles and Harriet Harman have tabled an amendment to the finance bill, due back before the Commons on 8 January, which would make government spending on no-deal measures illegal without parliament’s explicit consent.

As we are constantly reminded, there is no majority in the Commons for leaving without a deal, so if passed, the amendment would prevent ministers from funding and thus implementing the measures necessary to mitigate the impact of no-deal. Cooper describes it as a means to rule out a cliff-edge rupture with Brussels and then “look at every other legislative opportunity too”.

But that itself isn’t enough to declare a mission accomplished: in the absence of that clear majority agreeing something else, then the practical function of that amendment is like that of an aeroplane lifejacket whose inflation is conditional on a majority of passengers agreeing that they want the plane to crash. What MPs cannot do by fiat or legislative tinkering is change the fact that the crash is happening.

Similarly, by calling for the opportunity to “look at” alternative avenues for stopping a no deal, Cooper is essentially asking for MPs to get more time to disagree on what Brexit model they want. The majority against no deal in the Commons is much like the one that probably exists for stopping world hunger: the ends will always be aspirational unless you can get Priti Patel and Stephen Twigg to agree on the means, which you can’t.

That is also the fundamental problem with the logic of those MPs who tell the Huffington Post that they are planning a parliamentary guerrilla war to avert a no-deal scenario by tabling further such amendments to Brexit legislation that would aim to extend or revoke Article 50 or legislate for a second referendum. Other suggestions include taking the nuclear option of refusing to approve spending for Whitehall departments in a bid to make the business of government impossible.

We already know that the Prime Minister’s lack of a majority can be weaponised to derail what little is left of its domestic agenda to express dissatisfaction with their direction of travel on Brexit. The DUP and more doctrinaire end of the European Research Group have been doing so for months, which is no small part of the reason why May has postponed the meaningful vote in search of an Irish border compromise to buy them off with.

Simply aping that tactic in the hope of avoiding a no-deal can at best only be the start of a process that applies enough political pressure for the government and MPs to actively choose to do something else that stops it. Unless, as 29 March looms larger, minds are focused and compromises reached, these amendments are displacement activity. In the absence of another agreed solution, no deal remains the default.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.