Has parliament missed its chance to stop a no-deal Brexit?

MPs have more options than you might think. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Has Parliament missed its chance to stop a no-deal Brexit? That’s the message being aggressively briefed out to the press – that Downing Street can delay any parliamentary sanction long enough to ensure that the United Kingdom has left the European Union before any election is held.

Is it true? Well, it is and it isn’t. Parliament has plenty of options to break the resistance even of a truly determined Prime Minister. If a majority of MPs want, they can find some device or procedure to rewrite Parliament’s own arrangements and to legislate to force the hand of the Prime Minister. Or they can vote to revoke Article 50 and to strike “Exit Day” from British law. Or they can declare no confidence in the sitting Prime Minister and vote confidence in another one, to seek an extension to the Article 50 until a majority for a negotiated exit can be found. They could even decide to take matters out of Downing Street’s hands by voting to accept the withdrawal agreement and incorporate it into British law.

The problem isn’t that MPs have no options – it is that they may have run out of easy ways to assert those options, and it is not clear that any of them can actually command a majority in the House of Commons. The pattern of parliamentary votes has been very clear: big majorities to deplore the idea of a no-deal Brexit, and slim or non-existent majorities to actually prevent one. Parliament has rejected the withdrawal agreement three times, twice by heavy margins. It has rejected a second referendum and revoking Article 50. While MPs did, eventually and by just one vote, opt for an extension, they did so in a way that would not have worked had the sitting Prime Minister been determined to resist them.

As for a temporary government to seek an extension – one big barrier to that may have been removed, in that John McDonnell has said that Labour would be willing to “enable the replacement of this government” to prevent no deal. The structural problem is that there is no majority in this parliament for a government led by the leader of the Opposition (or, indeed, for any Labour politician who hopes to have a future in Labour politics afterwards), or the leader of the Liberal Democrats, but a government whose sole purpose is to prevent no-deal and facilitate an election is going to need the support of both those politicians to have any hope of succeeding. However, it is still far from clear who would actually lead that government, who could command the support of the varied forces that would be necessary to achieve a parliamentary majority.

So while it is not true to say that Parliament has run out of options, it is true, and perhaps more important, to say that Parliament has shown no willingness to use any of the options available – and it may never do so

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.