MPs have two routes to prevent a no-deal Brexit and one way to delay it: they can ratify the withdrawal agreement that has already been negotiated with the European Union, they can revoke Article 50 and bring the Brexit process to a halt, or they can legislate to force the government into an extension. Then – and this is the part that a lot of criticisms of the various groups opposed to no deal seems to forget – they have to ensure that the next parliament is at least as opposed to a no-deal Brexit as this one.
Yvette Cooper’s bill to seek an extension is the proof-of-concept behind that: it took a matter of days and can be pulled off in the remaining legislative time between Parliament returning from the summer recess and being sent off for the conference recess. (The same time could also be used to prevent prorogation on 11 September, though it is possible that the case making its way through the Scottish legal system might end up doing that anyway.)
The reason why my No-Deal-O-Meter hasn’t moved today is that this remains unchanged. The only difference is that we now know when the crucial votes will be. But the reason why my No-Deal-O-Meter is still high (I think that No Deal is the most likely outcome) is because I don’t think MPs are likely to take any of the options to prevent no deal and are highly unlikely to do so in a way that maximises the chances of producing a Parliament that is better placed to stop no deal than this one.
The important thing about John Bercow’s remarks that the government is committing a “constitutional outrage” isn’t whether he’s correct or not – it’s that if he thinks the government is committing a constitutional outrage, he is more likely to allow MPs constitutional and legislative leeway to prevent a no-deal Brexit next week.
So MPs will have an opportunity to prevent a no-deal Brexit and will have another after 15 October, though that is less clear, because the final planned European Council meeting before Brexit is on 17 October. In practice, should MPs get their act together in those final days, another EuCo meeting (Agenda Item One: The Brits Are At It Again) is not the hardest thing in the world to create.
What I think the bigger development today is the government moving forward the date of reckoning. Why? Because it means that if MPs do get their act together then an election can be held before the executive seeks a further extension to the Article 50 process. While it’s hard to see a non-fraught path to re-election for the Conservative party that doesn’t involve travelling backwards in time and passing the Withdrawal Agreement into law in January, it seems to me that they essentially have three options:
- Hold an election after having gone back on their promise to leave by 31 October come what may – an election in which they will not only lose the voters they have written off to the Liberal Democrats in England and Wales and the SNP in Scotland, but will also lose votes to the Brexit party and struggle to win votes from Labour in small towns to compensate.
- Hold an election having gone for a no-deal Brexit, whether during or immediately before a general election. Something that a lot of people are neglecting is that you don’t even have to posit that no-deal Brexit is as bad as the central forecasts. Even a significantly better than expected no-deal Brexit is potentially an election-breaking event.
- Hold an election before 31 October and hope that a message of “don’t let Parliament stop Brexit” allows you to get a majority.
None are backdrops you’d choose if fighting for a fourth term in office but 3 is the least fraught. The government’s problem is that it can’t control which of those outcomes it gets – but it is striking that it has picked a course of action that maximises the prospects of 3.