How MPs would almost certainly prevent a no-deal Brexit

Theresa May’s threat has never been credible – in the event of no deal, parliament would revolt against her. 

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A spectre is haunting the UK the spectre of a no-deal Brexit. Each day brings new warnings of the apocalyptic consequences of crashing out of the EU without an agreement.

In theory, should no deal be reached by 29 March 2019, the UK will automatically leave. Food and medicine shortages, grounded flights and price surges could all result.

Though Jacob Rees-Mogg and other hard Brexiteers are intensely relaxed about this prospect, most MPs, including on the Conservative side, believe no deal would be a reckless act of national self-harm. But could they stop it? Theresa May recently warned Tory ministers that Labour could use a “humble address” as a means of preventing no deal. This arcane parliamentary procedure was previously deployed by the opposition to force the release of the government’s Brexit impact assessments.

But its use is specifically limited to the publication of documents. As Erskine May, the authoritative guide to parliamentary practice, states:

“Each House has the power to call for the production of papers by means of a motion for a return. A return from the Privy Council or from departments headed by a Secretary of State is called for by means of an humble Address to the Sovereign; a return from elsewhere, such as a department not headed by a Secretary of State, is sought directly by means of an order of the House.”

There is no provision for the use of a humble address to direct the executive’s policy. But there are other means available to MPs to thwart no deal.

Under the concessions granted by the government over the EU Withdrawal Bill, the Prime Minister must make a statement to MPs by 21 January 2019 if no Brexit deal has been reached. Within a fortnight, the House of Commons would be given the opportunity to vote on the government’s plans, albeit in a motion expressed “in neutral terms” (such as “this House has considered the government’s plans to leave the European Union without a withdrawal agreement”).

Though this motion would not be legally binding, and would not force ministers to comply with MPs’ wishes, it would have immense symbolic power. And in the extreme circumstances of no-deal, the government would be challenged to permit a non-neutral motion, while Labour could use its parliamentary time to table its own version.

In practice, then, politics would likely trump procedure. Faced with the prospect of no deal, the government would be pressured to grant one or more of the following: a soft Brexit (European Economic Area membership), a second referendum, or an early general election. As 2017 demonstrated, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is no obstacle to the latter: parliament can be dissolved through a two-thirds majority, or through a vote of no confidence in the government (resulting in a new election unless an alternative administration wins the support of the Commons within 14 days).

In such circumstances, the EU has already signalled that it would be prepared to grant an extension to the Article 50 period (though this requires the unanimous approval of the 27 other EU member states).

After the events of recent times a surprise Conservative majority in 2015, the election of Donald Trump as US president, Brexit itself  it would be reckless for anyone to state that no deal is “impossible”. But it is less likely than much coverage suggests.

Before the Leave vote in 2016, David Cameron repeatedly stated that Article 50 would be triggered immediately, in an attempt to deter Brexit. Similarly, May’s insistence that “no deal is better than a bad deal” is a purely tactical threat  the EU and most MPs have never regarded it as credible.

No deal would not only be the most reckless act of national self-harm in post-war European history, it would also be a democratic outrage. Parliament and the public would revolt and the government would be forced to devise an alternative. 

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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