Can Parliament Actually Block No-Deal Brexit?

Boris Johnson has entered Number 10 bringing new energy and a new approach to Brexit. Throughout his campaign his primary pledge was to ensure the UK leaves on the 31st of October “come what may”. Johnson says he will seek the removal of controversial Irish backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement but failing this, will continue with a no-deal Brexit. On the opposite side of the debate MPs across Parliament are united against a no-deal Brexit. In April 2019, in a series of indicative votes MPs voted against a no-deal Brexit in any form. Remain supporting politicians from all parties have committed to blocking a no-deal Brexit. This leaves the very crucial question of who is telling the truth? Does Johnson have the power to leave without a deal or does Parliament have the power to block it? The default legal position is that the UK leaves the European Union on 31 October but there are variety of mechanism which could disrupt this. We explore how a no-deal Brexit could be blocked by MPs or how a no-deal could still happen regardless.

How could Parliament block a no-deal Brexit?

No confidence motion

A no confidence motion tabled by the Labour Party is the most discussed option. Here, Jeremy Corbyn would issue a motion and there would be a vote in Parliament. If Parliament vote down the government, Johnson would have to resign, and another group of MPs have two weeks to form a government. If they fail to do so, a general election follows. A new administration could see the blocking of a no-deal.

Timing is absolute crucial here. Government’s don’t tend to lose opposition tabled confidence motions because it requires their own Party MPs to vote to bring down the government. Theresa May survived Corbyn’s no-confidence motion by 19 votes in January this year. Now however, prominent Tory MPs have publicly stated they would be willing to bring down the government to block a no-deal Brexit. Corbyn would need these dissenting Tory members in order for the motion to pass but it would need to be clear to these MPs that blocking a no-deal Brexit would be achievable. Furthermore, many Tory MPs are unlikely to put their jobs at risk and vote against their government in favour of Corbyn government. It is not clear whether Corbyn would have the numbers to successfully bring down the government through this method.  

Even if the no-confidence motion is success time is very short. Corbyn has confirmed he will table a no-confidence motion but the earliest this can now be done is when Parliament return from summer recess. Parliament return on 3rd September, less than 8 weeks until 31 October. The schedule is extremely tight, so even if the no-confidence motion is successfully passed, unless new group of MPs successfully form a government, to hold a general election and collect results within a matter of weeks is almost unfeasible. There is no guarantee that a new administration would be in place in time if a no-confidence motion is called, so the default position would still see the UK leave on 31 October regardless.

Block Legislation

Parliament could try and amend or block new government bills, essentially paralyzing the government. Crucially there are eight bills and draft bills which replace the EU law which ideally need to be in place before we leave the EU. These bills cover sectors such financial services, immigration, agriculture and fisheries. If these bills are not passed there could be severe disruption as there would be hugely limited or no legislation governing the sectors. MPs could table amendments to these bills that require a delay Brexit.

In addition, the government would probably wish to increase spending or introduce new measures to buffer the impact of a no-deal Brexit. Parliament would be able to block or amend these plans in order to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

The government are essentially powerless when it comes to Brexit legislation. In order to get any legislation through Parliament, a government requires a majority of the votes. Since the 2017 general election the government have been propped up by the DUP’s 10 MPs. This gave the government a working majority, allowing it pass legislation. Following defections however, the government now has a working majority in Parliament of just two. Furthermore, many Tory MPs are firmly opposed to a no-deal Brexit meaning passing any no-deal legislation without significant challenge is impossible. The only issue is, the government does not necessarily have to pass any substantial legislation between now and October, so this method may not be effective.  

These are primary means in which Parliament could block no deal. As it stands, the means to block a no-deal are quite limited. There are, however, numerous Parliamentary mechanisms which MPs could draw upon and as Brexit date draws nearer, alternative means could arise.

How we could leave with no-deal?

By doing nothing

The current legal position is that the UK leaves the European Union on the 31st of October 2019. Technically, if nothing is done, we will leave on this date. We were initially due to leave on March 29, but Theresa May sought two extensions after her Brexit withdrawal Agreement was emphatically defeated three times in total.

Boris Johnson has pledged to leave the European Union on the 31st of October, “do or die”. As outlined above, there are numerous means for Parliament to intervene. To ensure a smoother departure, legislation would ideally need to be passed but passing such legislation is not essential for the UK to legally leave the EU. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that Johnson would lose a no-confidence vote. Even if he did lose, it would be a difficult to halt the Brexit process before the exit date. Evidently, the success of Parliamentary measures is far from guaranteed so in theory, by simply doing nothing, Johnson can ensure the UK will leaves the EU on the promised date.

Prorogation of Parliament

If Parliament attempts to block a no-deal Brexit through the means outline below, the Prime Minister can prorogue Parliament. This means Parliament would be shut down, preventing them stopping a no-deal Brexit.

This is a hugely controversial measure. Boris Johnson has refused to rule it out and this has sparked outrage across Parliament. Critics have said proroguing Parliament wholly undemocratic and unconstitutional. Some highlighted the irony that the notion of Brexit was to bring control back to the UK Parliament but in order to achieve it the government wants to remove that Parliamentary control. Parliament was famously prorogued by King Charles I in 1629 for 11 years after it failed to provide him with additional finances.

This option is, however, less probable after MPs recent action. In July, MPs voted in favour of new measures to prevent any government from proroguing Parliament. The measure was an amendment to a bill and requires a minister to report on the progress of Northern Ireland assembly restoration talks every two weeks. The report will then be debated in Parliament within 5 days and if Parliament was prorogued, the House would still be required to meet. This in practice mean any prorogation would be ineffective as Parliament still sits in some form.   

Conclusion

Taking all into account, Parliament can block a no deal Brexit but the means to do so are highly limited. The government are ramping up plans for a no-deal as the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October is becoming increasingly likely. Whether Parliament will change its approach as the deadline draws nearer remains to be seen.

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