Labour have tabled a cross-party motion to seize control of the parliamentary agenda, which, if passed, would give MPs the ability to introduce legislation on 25 June to prevent a no deal Brexit.
It underlines the essential truth of the British constitution: that if you have a parliamentary majority, then you can do whatever you want. Barring a major upset, tomorrow’s vote ought to pass – it requires just three Conservative rebels to defeat the government, and the number of MPs who have consistently rebelled to prevent a no-deal Brexit is significantly larger than that. According to one perennial rebel, it is “easier” to rebel now, as there is now a government in name only to rebel against, and those MPs who rebelled are backing leadership candidates who have also ruled out a no-deal Brexit.
The open question is if there is further movement on the Labour side, and if so, in what direction. A small group of Labour MPs – Caroline Flint, John Mann and Kevin Barron – have consistently voted for the withdrawal agreement and against measures to delay or prevent Brexit to avoid “no-deal”, as have two former Labour MPs, Iain Austin and Frank Field. A much larger group of Labour MPs have consistently spoken of the need for a deal while voting both against the withdrawal agreement and any measures to stop or delay Brexit.
Both groups are now split. Some Labour MPs who backed the withdrawal agreement believe that the hesitation of their colleagues means that there is now no realistic prospect of a leaving the European Union with a deal and that they must now do anything to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Others in that group believe that they might still be able to get a deal from the new Conservative Prime Minister. Other Labour MPs, who have yet to back the deal, are privately suggesting they may vote against tomorrow’s motion but are facing considerable pressure from the whips not to do so.
No fewer than three MPs who have consistently voted against any measure to stop or delay Brexit have privately accepted that, if in October they have a choice between voting to revoke Article 50 and a no-deal Brexit, they will reluctantly choose to revoke – an indication that when push comes to shove, the Labour rebels who have cancelled out some Conservative dissenters will not pick no-deal over no Brexit.
But of that group, just one believes that the moment is now.
If the motion does pass, does it mean that we are inevitably heading towards an election? Given that Boris Johnson, the frontrunner in the Conservative race, has vowed to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union by 31 October come what may, he might be forced into one. However, Johnson’s close allies believe that, when push comes to shove, Parliament will step back from actually voting to revoke Article 50, the one way that MPs can actually prevent a no-deal Brexit. “People say Parliament stopped a no-deal Brexit,” one pro-Johnson Cabinet minister says, “It’s not true. Theresa May stopped a no-deal Brexit.”
Are they right? Well, we won’t know for certain by the end of tomorrow, but if Parliament won’t at this stage vote even to take a measure of control over the process, Johnson’s gamble may be proved correct. If Parliament does vote for Labour’s motion, however, then the United Kingdom is a great deal closer to preventing a no-deal Brexit – and to another general election.