There are various ways that Parliament could try to gain greater control of Brexit. But they'd still have to decide what they wantby Alice Lilly / January 15, 2019 / Leave a comment
The Government is widely expected to lose today’s vote in
the Commons on its Brexit deal—a vote that has been already delayed since
before Christmas. If the Prime Minister’s plan is voted down, then the
Government is obliged to set out its Plan B to Parliament before Monday.
What is less clear is what that plan will involve—or how MPs
will react to it. It is likely that Parliament will continue to try and take
control of the Brexit process using a range of different parliamentary procedures.
The first question is whether the Government even survives
until Monday. Labour may table a motion of no confidence in the Government
following a Meaningful Vote defeat. Unlike the motion of censure they tabled
before Christmas, time would be found—and quickly—for the Commons to debate a
If the Government were to lose this vote, then a 14-day
clock would start ticking. Within those 14 days, if neither the Government nor
any alternative government could show it command the confidence of the House, by
winning a vote, then an early election would be called. Quite what this could
mean for the future course of Brexit is difficult to say—and it is likely that
Article 50 would have to be extended.
If a no confidence vote doesn’t emerge, MPs might try and
take control themselves. We have seen a lot of talk in recent days about ways
MPs across the parties could take greater control of parliamentary time in
order to push the Government into a different approach.
Usually, most time in the Commons—as well as the scheduling
of business—is controlled by the government. This means that most legislation
passed originates from the Government, not the backbenches. If MPs were to
table an amendment to the Government’s Plan B motion temporarily changing
Parliament’s rules—the Standing Orders—they might prevent government
legislation having precedence, then could table their own bills knowing time
would be available to debate them.
One of these plans, mooted by a cross-party group of MPs led
by Nick Boles MP,
is for backbenchers to then table a bill requiring the Government to come up
with an alternative plan. And if that fails, it would have the Commons Liaison
Committee come up with a plan (though this was apparently news
to the Chair and members of the Liaison Committee). In the event that neither
Parliament nor Government could find an alternative with the support of MPs, Boles’
plan would see the Government request an extension of Article 50.
While this plan has been criticised—these kinds of changes
to Standing Orders, and for this purpose, would be unprecedented—it shows just
how far Parliament has come in recent weeks. A week ago, it would have been
immediately dismissed as unworkable—but after the Speaker’s unexpected decision
to allow an amendment to a supposedly unamendable motion last week,
Parliament’s usual procedures can’t be assumed to apply.
If Boles’ attempt to gain control of Parliamentary time
comes to nothing, MPs may revert to the sorts of tactics that we just before
and just after Christmas: amending other bills the Government has before
Parliament to try and make leaving the EU without a deal more difficult for the
The effect of Yvette Cooper’s amendment to the Finance Bill
last week was relatively minor in practical terms, limiting some specific
powers the Treasury would have over tax law in the event of no deal. But its
political effect was greater: it showed that there is a majority in the House
of Commons for no deal, and when the Government’s other legislation—for
example, the Trade Bill—returns to Parliament in the coming weeks, those MPs
who want to prevent no deal may feel emboldened to follow Cooper’s example.
What all of these options share is a desire to try and give
Parliament a greater say in how, and in what way, the Brexit process unfolds.
This represents a broader struggle for control between the executive and the
legislature that has been unfolding over the past two years.
The question for Parliament, though, is what it does with
more control. While the various procedural levers they have might give MPs a
greater say in the Brexit process, it is not yet clear what Parliament wants.
They may not want to leave with no deal, and they may not
want the Prime Minister’s deal—but what is their alternative? As things stand,
there are fewer than 75 days remaining before Brexit, when Britain will leave the
EU whether there is a deal or not. If Parliament wants to prevent no deal, it
needs to come up with its own plan. The procedures they may use offer some
potential routes for them to do this—but they will still ultimately have to
find a majority for a different option.
Either way, parliamentary procedure will continue to play a big
role in the coming days and weeks. While debates over the amendability of
business motions, and the meaning of the word “forthwith,” may appear
relatively trivial against the backdrop of a ticking clock and a parliamentary
impasse, these procedural arguments will be vital in determining how Brexit