As senior Conservatives step up their “guerrilla campaign” to prevent the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal, experts on parliamentary procedure are warning the options for blocking a no-deal Brexit remain limited.
In the latest salvo from Remain supporters trying to stop no deal, the government was defeated on an amendment tabled by Dominic Grieve on Wednesday. It prevents Downing Street from running down the clock to no deal if it loses the meaningful vote on the Brexit deal.
It was the second defeat for the government in 24 hours after 20 Tory MPs yesterday voted for Yvette Cooper’s amendment seeking to limit the government's tax powers in the event of no deal. BuzzFeed News has counted 42 Tory MPs who have indicated they will try to stop a no-deal Brexit.
The two votes this week have taken on a symbolic significance, showing a majority of MPs oppose no deal, and that Commons Speaker John Bercow is willing to set new procedural precedents in defiance of the government.
But while the MPs who oppose a no-deal Brexit are winning votes in the Commons, leaving the EU without a deal on March 29 remains the default position if Theresa May’s proposed deal is voted down and the UK fails to come up with an alternative plan in time.
Senior Remain-supporting Tory MPs, government officials, Labour sources, and Commons experts agree that the options for blocking no deal are limited.
Following Wednesday’s vote on the Grieve amendment, Chris White, a former Conservative special adviser who was responsible for managing the government’s legislative programme, said that unless the government decides otherwise, the UK remains on course to leave the EU on March 29 with or without a deal.
“However much Speaker may wish to reinterpret the rules, the legislative fact remains that UK will exit the EU on March 29 unless MPs 1) Agree on a Plan B, and pass legislation through both the Commons and the Lords before March 29 OR 2) Extend/revoke A50 (with Govt agreement),” White wrote.
Pro-Remain Tory rebels this week discussed a number of ideas to try to force the government into preventing a no-deal Brexit, but so far none of them have stood up to scrutiny.
One option floated by MPs yesterday was to amend one of the several bills currently going through the Commons to rule out no deal. A government source said this plan was “really unlikely” to succeed as such an amendment would not be “in scope” of any of the bills going through parliament.
Another idea was to use a private members’ bill or a 10-minute rule bill to try to force the government to legislate to revoke Article 50. White told BuzzFeed News this was a “non-starter”.
A memo circulated among Remain-supporting MPs today suggested that, if the government does not move to rule out a no-deal Brexit, the only way for Conservative rebels to prevent no deal would be to vote with Labour in a no-confidence vote.
A constitutional expert who works for the Conservative party told BuzzFeed News there were two ways MPs could prevent a no-deal Brexit: through political pressure forcing the government to change tack, or voting with the Labour party to bring down May.
“Regardless of today, it does not change the legal reality that we are leaving on March 29. There are only two key questions: When the government loses the vote next week, does it give in to the Remainers? And if it does not, do enough Conservative MPs vote with Corbyn in a no-confidence vote?” the expert said.
But a government source warned that any Tory MP who sided with Labour on a confidence vote would immediately have the whip withdrawn and be deselected as a Conservative candidate at the next election. “They would be voting to end their career,” the source said.
Tory MPs campaigning against no deal admitted to BuzzFeed News that they hoped to use votes in parliament to create political pressure on the government to rule out no deal, conceding they had not yet found a parliamentary mechanism by which to force Downing Street's hand.
May told the Remain rebels at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday that the only way for them to rule out no deal was by voting for her deal.
As things stand, Downing Street remains in a position to decide if it wants to take the UK towards a no-deal Brexit if it loses the meaningful vote next week. If it takes that path, Remain MPs accept the only way to stop no deal would be to bring down the government.
Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Wickham at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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