There is still time for MPs to avert the cliff-edge outcomeby Charles Grant / August 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
Boris Johnson says he won’t talk to the EU unless it agrees to scrap the Irish backstop. The EU says that any deal with Britain must be based on the current withdrawal agreement, including the backstop. With neither side willing to blink, Britain seems set to leave the EU without a deal on 31st October. Yet despite appearances, that outcome remains far from certain.
At the moment Johnson is taking a very hard line with the EU. But might he flinch at the last moment? As the end of October approaches, he will realise that the EU is unwilling to budge. He will watch financial markets falling, shoppers buying in panic, foreign investors screaming, farmers threatening to slaughter livestock and tensions rising in Northern Ireland. He may wonder whether he really wants to fight an election campaign with the economy in turmoil.
If Johnson did seek a reasonable compromise from the EU, it would be willing to oblige—for example by amending the withdrawal agreement to produce a longer transition period or a Northern Ireland-only backstop, producing clarifications or interpretations, or changing the political declaration on the future relationship. But if the EU and Johnson dressed up Theresa May’s package to make it look prettier, it would still struggle to pass the Commons.
If Johnson himself will not prevent no deal, MPs will have to do so. Some of them hope to amend legislation so that they can take control of the parliamentary agenda. That would allow backbenchers to propose a bill requiring the government to seek an extension of Article 50. But this method can only work if the government proposes laws, and it may try to govern—at least for a while—without doing so.
Then MPs would have to look to Standing Order 24, a procedure which allows the opposition—if the Speaker approves—to hold an emergency debate on an amendable motion. An amendment could enable MPs to take over parliament’s agenda on a specified date, leading to legislation on extending Article 50.
If these agenda-seizing methods fail, MPs will focus on motions of no confidence. Given that the government’s majority is just one, it could easily be defeated. But a successful motion would not in itself stop no deal. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) specifies a two-week period before…