4 Dec 2018

Today’s business motion could be vital to the outcome of Brexit

Political Editor

The most important moment in Brexit proceedings in Parliament today was not the contempt debate that grinding its way through the Commons but a business motion amendment that happened just afterwards.

At times, the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox looked overwhelmed with emotion as he listened to colleagues giving character references that might spring him from the contempt charge. That’s as nothing to the tears in No. 10 as they contemplate another attempt by opposition parties and dissident Tory MPs to take back control from the government if the Prime Minister’s deal is defeated in the vote planned for Tuesday next week.

Dominic Grieve, which passed tonight, allows a coalition of opposition and Tory dissident MPs to instruct the government on policy on Brexit if the government comes back a second time to the Commons after a first time defeat next week.

MPs would, in theory, be able to paint in their own solution to the Brexit conundrum. One small problem: they struggle to agree on one.

You see that looking at two particular solutions being touted with some support in the Commons right now: the idea of second referendum and the idea of a “Norway plus” solution in which Britain stays in the Single Market and a customs union. Senior backers of both ideas are in what one called “a race to be last.” They don’t want to be voted too soon as that would expose what some backers acknowledge is inadequate support right now. They think they can build up support in the “chaos and uncertainty” (copyright Theresa May) that would follow a defeat for the Prime Minister’s approach. The Dominic Grieve amendment being voted on in a few hours’ time gives them the possibility of a later moment, after other avenues seem blocked, to become the preferred emergency option. Backers of the Norway-style approach have similar plans to hang back for now and step forward with an enticing amendment later in the process.

To add to all the uncertainty, as I mentioned in this blog on Saturday, a number of MPs who’ve met the Chief Whip claim to have been told that the government won’t put the vote next week if they think it will be defeated. Some backbenchers think it might be pulled on Friday. Labour sources say it would be an extraordinary moment for the Prime Minister to have moved a motion (later today) only for the motion not to be put. But we might see more extraordinary moments to come. Nigel Dodds of the DUP told me he “wouldn’t rule out”  the vote being pulled. (The government still insists it’ll do nothing of the sort.)

In the Telegraph today former Foreign Secretary, Lord Hague, spells out how MPs could make their power felt if they want to, say, stop any chance of a “no deal” Brexit, even without the Dominic Grieve amendment giving them another weapon:

” … motions can be moved in emergency debates agreed to by the Speaker. Such motions could be used to show a clear majority against going ahead with Brexit on March 29, and mandating the Government to bring forward the necessary regulation to defer the date. While ministers could refuse to accede to a motion of this kind, doing so would precipitate a full-blown constitutional crisis of which this week’s row over publishing legal advice is just a foretaste. The Commons could proceed to pass motions of censure on individual ministers or of no confidence in the Government.”

If MPs across parties coordinated closely with each other, then they could embark on many more radical departures from normal procedures. Each house of parliament is in charge of its own standing orders – its rules of procedure – and a majority can change them as it sees fit.

The Commons can, if it wishes, sit at weekends and through the night; set up committees and demand they report in days; summon officials to the bar of the House for cross-examination; compress the time required to pass a bill; cut off money to parts of the Government; extend Question Time to many hours; refuse to adjourn at all; or cancel all other business.”

An expert in constitutional law makes similar points and explains how Parliament could try to assert itself in coming weeks here.

MPs could end up asserting themselves in unprecedented ways over the future relationship negotiations. Any extension of the transition period, for instance, could be subject to a parliamentary vote. The Brexit process could get even messier and more unpredictable than the one we’re currently watching.