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21 December 2018

A group of MPs want to stop a no-deal Brexit. But even they can’t agree on an alternative

For our divided parliament, the withdrawal agreement is only the first hurdle. 

By Stephen Bush

My way or the cliff: that’s the decision that Theresa May wants MPs to be contemplating over the Christmas recess. But a group of MPs have a plan to take the weapon out of the Prime Minister’s hands, HuffPo’s Paul Waugh reveals: a series of amendments that will “halt” no deal, and the threat that the government could face defeat on non-Brexit matters, including the finance bill, unless May rules out no deal.

The first amendment out of the box – tabled by Yvette Cooper and signed by Nicky Morgan, Hilary Benn, Oliver Letwin, Harriet Harman, Rachel Reeves, and Nick Boles – would prohibit the government from implementing no-deal provisions without the express consent of parliament.

There are three things to note here. The first is that while the legislature can prevent the executive from levying taxes and triggering various provisions to make no deal less chaotic and disruptive, the legislature cannot prevent “no deal” by decree any more than I can prevent “no lightbulb” by decree – I have to make a proactive choice to go to the shops and buy another one. The only alternative to a no-deal exit is to agree to something else with the European Union, whether that is the withdrawal agreement or no Brexit at all, neither of which currently commands a parliamentary majority. Absent that, all amendments to limit what the government can do in the event of no deal merely sharpen the rocks at the bottom of the ravine – they increase rather than decrease May’s leverage.

The second is that even within the seven signatories to Cooper’s amendment there is division about which path to take forward to resolve the crisis. Morgan, Letwin and Boles all favour a close relationship with the European Union after Brexit that looks a lot like the EEA, and all three plan to vote for the withdrawal agreement to facilitate that. Benn, too, wants an EEA-style final relationship but as it stands will vote against the withdrawal agreement because the current political declaration positions us away from an EEA-type arrangement not towards it. Reeves is in favour of a second referendum. Cooper has called for Article 50 to be extended to allow more time for discussion.

The third is that it illuminates a crucial difference between parliament’s Remainers and its Brexiteers. For the most part, devoted Brexiteers, particularly on the Conservative benches, have spent most if not all of their careers on the backbenches, and those who have held ministerial office have, with a few exceptions, mostly not had much of a grip on how their departments run. For the most part, Westminster’s organised Remainers have spent almost all of their parliamentary careers on the frontbench and their amendments tend to rely on a degree of sympathetic interpretation, or at least not the out-and-out intransigence that May prefers.

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There are some measures that parliament could take that would take no deal off the table – for instance, as Jo Maugham suggests, by voting through a motion that if an accord has not been reached by exit day, the United Kingdom will revoke Article 50. But as Maugham also rightly notes, that motion might be passable after February 2019 – it isn’t passable now. And it’s much more likely that if it looks like no agreement will be reached in February then MPs will vote for May’s deal, rather than no deal or no Brexit at all.

But the problem is that the withdrawal agreement is merely the United Kingdom’s first close encounter with the cliff edge. This divided and fractious parliament is going to have to reach an accord on extending the transition period, or if you are feeling wildly optimistic, about the final free trade agreement. The same fraught parliamentary arithmetic will still apply, unless that it is, another election returns a significantly different parliament, or another referendum returns a different result to the last one.