Theresa May’s established position was that the only choice MPs have, when it comes to voting on a deal, is between Brexit on that deal’s terms and no Brexit at all. There is an obvious tactical reason for compromising it. If the Government’s message to pro-Remain MPs is that junking her deal risks no deal, and to pro-Leave MPs that doing so risks no Brexit, then it may be able to stampede enough of both, sooner or later, into the Aye lobby – and somehow squeeze her deal through a hostile Commons.
So it came about that the Prime Minister said recently that there if MPs hold out for their vision of a perfect Brexit, there is risk of a situation “where Brexit is somehow delayed, or people try stop it from happening”. But how could it be delayed? (By which May also meant stopped, since Brexit might well never emerge from long grass once kicked into it.)
After all, no less authoritative a figure than Sir David Natzler, the clerk of the Commons, has said that the Government can ignore any non-statutory vote by MPs that suggests an alternative Brexit plan. That would include any amendments to the “meaningful vote”. Admittedly, he added that any such amendment, if passed, might have political effect even though having no legal effect. But how would that work?
Imagine, for a moment, that the Commons passes an amendment to the meaningful vote calling for a second EU referendum. It took more than six months for the original referendum bill to pass through Parliament, given the complexity and controversy of the matters it raised – the question, the franchise, spending rules, voting areas, regional counts, purdah, and so on.
Debate on a second referendum would also address, in a manner that on the first did not, whether or not the referendum was to be binding or advisory. It is very hard to see how such a bill should be driven through Parliament between early December and March 29 next year. No, the date of Brexit would have to be suspended to allow time for a public vote – the real aim of the second referendum campaigners.
You will already have spotted the snag. May is committed to delivering Brexit on time. She yesterday repeated her opposition to a second referendum. So for her to say that Brexit may be “somehow delayed” is a contradiction in terms, since only she, or rather the Government she leads, has the power to delay it, by introducing a bill to do so. Plus another, presumably, to allow a second referendum.
Perhaps you wouldn’t put it past the Prime Minister to do tear up her pledge. After all, she has already done so to others. But in the event of this happening, dissident MPs of all parties would make passing a bill to postpone Brexit or hold a second referendum very difficult indeed. It isn’t clear what Jeremy Corbyn’s stance would be, let alone that of Labour MPs in pro-Leave seats.
Furthermore, any attempt to put Brexit on ice, or hold a second referendum, would divide the Conservative Party even more deeply. If there are already enough Tory MPs opposed to her deal to sink it in the Commons, there would be even more ready to bury any Bill to delay Brexit or hold a second referendum. (And remember: the EU Withdrawal Act provisions are in place.)
In short, the Party would be riven further from the Cabinet table down. There is the possibility of a split. In these circumstances, those delayed 48 letters would turn up. So any decision to postpone Brexit turns out to be intertwined with a leadership challenge. How likely is it that May would survive without being fatally wounded, or at all?
Of course, the Commons has other means of seeking to delay Brexit or hold a second referendum. It could pass Opposition Day motions. It could seek to amend bills in ways unhelpful to the Government. It could wreak havoc with programme motions. It could bring business to a standstill.
But the long and short of it is that the Government controls the legislative timetable. Which takes us back to where we were before: Brexit can’t be delayed or a second referendum held unless May tears up her promises. The legislature is not in a position to halt a no deal Brexit without the executive’s consent. Perhaps Amber Rudd was suggesting yesterday that this will be forthcoming.
It will be said that Parliament, not the Executive, is sovereign, and that we don’t live under the dictatorship of Ministers. Quite so. If the Commons is determined not to oppose a no deal Brexit, and the Government is determined to deliver Brexit on time, there is only one means of resolving the stand-off – a general election. Would Conservative MPs opposed to no deal be prepared to back Labour in a no confidence vote, turn their own party out of Downing Street and risk putting Jeremy Corbyn in?