A no-deal Brexit appears increasingly likely on 31 October given the lack of time to secure a new agreement with the EU and the diminishing number of ways in which MPs could block such a process, an influential thinktank has said.
In a report on the likely lead-up to the UK’s departure, the Institute for Government said that MPs merely expressing opposition to no deal would not necessarily be sufficient and that there were limited parliamentary manoeuvres open to them to force the issue.
With the exit date now less than 12 weeks away, should the government reach a new accord with the EU there would only be a slim parliamentary window in which to pass the necessary legislation. Even bringing down the government would be unlikely to see an election take place in time.
“MPs looking to force the government into a change of approach face a huge challenge when parliament returns,” said Joe Owen, the Brexit programme director for the institute. “Even if they can assemble a majority for something, they may find few opportunities to make their move – and time is running out.”
The thinktank’s report – titled Voting on Brexit: Parliament’s Role before 31 October – noted that more than three years on from the referendum, the UK’s options remained the same: leaving with a deal; leaving without a deal; seeking an extension; or revoking article 50.
But while no-deal Brexit would happen by default, and the government has said it does not need to pass any more primary legislation before 31 October for it to happen, a new deal would require Boris Johnson’s government to seal this with the EU over the summer and begin parliamentary work after the Commons recess in September.
Even if this happens – and Johnson is currently declining any new talks with the EU without a commitment from Brussels to ditch the Irish backstop border insurance policy – the current Commons schedule would leave just 22 sitting days to pass the new withdrawal deal.
The report said that while a majority of MPs appeared to oppose no deal, they would “need new tactics” to actually block it, given the lack of Brexit-related legislation on to which to tack amendments or new motions, unlike when Theresa May was seeking to pass her deal.
Simply passing motions opposing no deal would not be enough, the report argued, as Johnson’s government has indicated it will not be bound by these. Amending primary legislation would carry more weight, but this would depend on bills being brought to the Commons, which might not happen. Even what the report called the “nuclear option” of a no-confidence vote against Johnson’s government might not block no deal, the report said, as Johnson could sit out the 14-day period dictated if he lost such a vote, even if a new government seemed viable.
The report said that if an election was called, given a five-week campaign period and a possible week needed to finish parliamentary business before dissolution, it would be very tight to arrange before 31 October.
Such a timetable “would raise big questions for the civil service”, the report added. “Although it could continue to prepare for no deal, as it would be seen as being ‘in the national interest’, it would be restricted in how it communicated about it. It would also make it a more challenging choice for businesses considering investing in no-deal preparations as they may want to await the outcome of the election.”