Chris White was Special Adviser to Patrick McLoughlin, when the latter served as Chief Whip, as well as to Andrew Lansley and William Hague when each served as Leader of the House. He is now Managing Director of Newington Communications.
Ultimately, it all comes down to time. The clock is ticking down, day by day, until 31st October when the UK will leave without a deal.
Those MPs wanting to stop that need time to either pass legislation requiring the Government to seek an extension, or to trigger a vote of no confidence and prove that there is a majority for an alternative PM to be appointed by the Queen.
The Prime Minister’s decision to prorogue Parliament, ostensibly to have a new Queen’s Speech and set out his new domestic agenda, took a huge chunk out of what little time there is left. There were 22 days when the Commons was sitting between 3rd September and 31st October – now there will be a maximum of 15. The prorogation also stymies the rebel’s plans to defeat a motion to approve the conference recess, so they will now be unable to gain an extra three weeks to debate and pass legislation to stop no deal.
The plan is remarkable in its ingenuity, and coupled with other measures set out below means we are into proper parliamentary trench warfare. Number 10 may well argue that the new Prime Minister should have the right to set out his new domestic agenda – and in any normal year that would be true.
The timing now, however, is controversial. MPs will not be sitting between at least Wednesday 11th, possibly even as early as 9th September according to the Order in Council approving the prorogation signed by the Queen yesterday, to 14th October. That’s 35 days that MPs won’t be sitting. For context, since 1979 no prorogation has been longer than 20 days.
Number 10 have spent the summer months diligently working through the mathematics of how to eat up as much time as possible in the Parliamentary timetable and deny MPs that time to change course. Prorogation is simply the first of a range of actions we can expect to see, where the Government will use its control of the Order Paper to maximum effect, including several set piece debates to prevent anti No Deal MPs debating their own legislation:
- Queen’s Speech debate – there is by convention four days of debate on the Queen’s Speech from 14th October;
- Budget – by convention there are another four days of debate – no date is set for this, but it could be in October;
- Emergency Spending Review – scheduled for Wednesday 4th September, this would be another day used up.
Other measures are also being considered, ranging from creating a public bank holiday to filibustering any legislation brought forward by rebel MPs in the Lords, where every amendment must be debated and voted on.
What will anti No Deal MPs try and do?
The key moment is now sharply brought forward to next week when the Commons returns for three days, and early the following week. Opposition MPs agreed earlier this week to focus on legislation instead of a vote of no confidence, essentially because no-one could agree on an alternative candidate for Prime Minister to replace Boris Johnson.
Yet with the announcement of prorogation, and the Queen’s Speech debate on 14th October, anti No Deal MPs could have as little as three or four days to get legislation through both Houses of Parliament ahead of the EU Council on 17th and 18th October. The Cooper-Letwin Bill in March, which is the model for MPs’ attempts this time, took five days.
The legislation binding the Government’s hands in March also only sought to bind the May Government’s hands to request an extension. This time, MPs may have to consider legislation that binds the Government’s hands not only to request, but also to accept, any extension on offer.
Finally, we come to the nuclear option. Earlier this year I wrote in The Times about whether the Government could issue Ministerial direction to the Queen to refuse Royal Assent. Some commentators, such as Sir Stephen Laws, the former First Parliamentary Counsel, have argued that this can be done but I still strongly believe, along with numerous constitutional academics, that the Queen has a constitutional duty to give Royal Assent to a Bill passed by Parliament. Parliamentary sovereignty is not subject to a Government veto.
That said, the window open to MPs seeking to stop a No Deal Brexit is vanishingly small. A slight miscalculation, or the inability to prevent Brexiteer peers from filibustering the Bill in the Lords, could see prorogation come on Monday 9th September with the Bill still stuck mid-passage.
With Parliament not sitting until 14th October, and MPs unable to debate anything other than the Queen’s Speech until around 21st October, there will be just ten days left before the deadline. Next week is shaping up to be a formidable battle.