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19 December 2018

Why a no-deal Brexit won’t be stopped simply by Tory MPs threatening to quit the party

Parliament can’t just be against no-deal, it has to be proactively in favour of something else.

By Stephen Bush

The cabinet has unanimously agreed to increase its contingency planning for a no-deal exit. On the European Union’s side, the Commission has announced its plans to manage the worst of no deal.

However, as I explain in greater detail here, that’s the worst of no deal from the EU27’s perspective: so financial services won’t lose their rights of passporting overnight, in order to avoid a financial crisis that could spread to the rest of Europe, and planes will still be able to fly, avoiding a gaggle of British tourists clogging up airports throughout the continent and irate European holidaymakers venting their anger on their own politics for the month they spent living out of a suitcase in Heathrow.

But the painful consequences from a British perspective – queues at customs, shortages of food and other essential items – won’t be remedied by the measures taken by the European Commission. Yesterday, Nick Boles became the first Conservative MP to say publicly what many of his colleagues have said privately: that in the event that no deal goes from being a contingency to the government’s main aim, he would resign the whip and vote in “any way necessary” to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Joining him already are Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry.

May’s hope will be that statements such as these will spook enough Leave ultras into realising that if they vote down May’s withdrawal agreement then the chances are that Brexit will get softer or not happen at all. That’s the argument being advanced by a growing number of pro-Brexit commentators outside Westminster and Tory whips hope that it will sink in over Christmas. But hard Brexiteers might well conclude that their prospects for getting what they want by default look pretty high.

The problem is that even in that public trio of Tory opponents of a no-deal exit you have two very different opinions about the way out: Wollaston and Soubry are supporters of a second referendum, while Boles is a vocal opponent of one. He made sure to reiterate that in a follow-up tweet, adding that he was “as opposed” to a second referendum as to a non-negotiated exit.

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That’s the problem: it’s not enough for parliament to be opposed to no deal. Parliament has to be proactively in favour of something to prevent no deal. As it stands, parliament is opposed to another election (which may not settle things in any case), to another referendum (ditto), to revoking Article 50 and to the withdrawal agreement. That’s a majority for no deal by other means.