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16 October 2017

Why parliament may be powerless to prevent a “no deal” Brexit

In voting for Article 50 in the manner they did, MPs surrendered their biggest chance to shape the process. 

By Stephen Bush

There is a lot of chatter about the fact that Labour has vowed to vote down any “no deal” arrangement in parliament.

However, there seems to be real confusion about what parliament conceded when it voted to trigger Article 50 at the start of 2017. That MPs passed the government’s bill unamended means that control over the Brexit process has passed from the legislature to the executive, and it is difficult, to put it mildly, to see how they can wrest this back.

As the final deal between the European Union and the United Kingdom will need to be ratified by the European parliament and nation states, in practice, the deadline for the talks to be resolved is not March 2019 but October 2018 – a little under a year away.

So even assuming that parliament re-asserts control of the process during the passage of the Withdrawal Bill, there will be precious little time for the legislature to a) take back control of the process, and b) meaningfully assert control over the process. (And it’s worth caveating any analysis about a cross-party analysis of pro-Remain MPs with another cross-party analysis: that between ultra Brexiteers on the government backbenches, and Labour MPs from Yorkshire and the West Midlands.)

That means that as it stands, the choice before the legislature will be between whatever arrangement the government cooks up and no deal at all.

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I don’t wish to go over old ground – and I’m not unsympathetic to the argument made by senior Labour figures privately, and one bolstered by Michael Ashcroft’s The Lost Majority, that voting against Article 50 would have led to a massacre in the general election – but ultimately when parliament not only voted through Article 50 but did so in a manner that effectively locked it out of the process, it ensured that the best case scenario is that it gets to vote on Theresa May’s deal or catastrophe.