The House of Commons’ efforts to wrest control of the Brexit process from the UK government have reached a new level. MPs are winning some key battles, but, as yet, are still only united in their frustrations.
The abiding rule of minority government is that you can govern, but only if your opponents do not form a majority against you. Theresa May lost control of the Commons when she lost her majority in June 2017 but continued to govern as if she had it. That is unsurprising — parliamentary rules give a great deal of power to governments and they grow accustomed to it. But we are seeing increasing signs that the non-government majority realise the power they now have. The problem is that power has not yet helped the Commons find a new solution.
In the past month in parliament we have seen an anti-government Commons majority come together on several issues. In December, we saw a majority vote to find the government in contempt of parliament, an unprecedented act. On Tuesday the Commons voted for Yvette Cooper’s amendment to the finance bill on “no-deal” preparations. This was a symbolic act showing the House’s opposition to no-deal, but not one that can by itself stop a no-deal Brexit. Before Christmas and again on Wednesday amendments by pro-Remain Conservative MP Dominic Grieve aimed to change the rules about what happens if Mrs May’s deal is voted down.
The row about interpretation of parliamentary procedure that followed Mr Grieve’s amendment this week speaks to a wider issue: the relative powers of the government and parliament. It was not mere displacement activity; it is part of parliament’s attempt to assert itself over the government and reflected the frustration many MPs feel at moves by the executive to restrict their role.
The row showed that the non-government majority have the support of a powerful friend, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. Mr Bercow has always seen his role as being to support backbenchers and to empower the Commons. The government knew it faced a Speaker who would not make things easy for it. After his decision to allow an unexpected amendment this week, the government knows he is willing to push accepted practice aside to make sure parliament has its say. This will have an impact on any big votes, starting with the “meaningful vote” on the prime minister’s Brexit deal this coming Tuesday. Mr Bercow’s role includes choosing amendments, grouping them and deciding in what order they are voted on. Some groups of MPs will only vote for a certain option after others have failed, so the Speaker’s decisions will be very important.
However, MPs in the Commons are still limited in what they can do: they can either vote for options the government provides them with or vote the government out. If the vote next week does go against the government, as seems likely, the question then will be whether the anti-deal majority can coalesce around anything other than attempting to stop no-deal. The UK leaves the EU on March 29 by default. That is written into statute and international law, so no matter how many votes go against the government on no-deal preparation, unless an alternative to Mrs May’s deal is voted for instead, Brexit will still happen.
In any scenario, Parliament will continue to have a huge role to play. Either the deal or no-deal require a significant amount of further legislation. If — and it is a huge if — Mrs May somehow got her deal passed, she would have to hold a majority together through the many subsequent weeks of turning the deal into statute. We still have not seen the draft of a withdrawal agreement bill and you can be sure that if MPs see what this deal looks like in legislation, they would find plenty to be troubled by.
Of course, there is also the option of voting the government out. But even if the deal is lost next week by a large margin, there are no immediate signs that the anti-government majority will vote no confidence in the government. It would take either the Democratic Unionist party deciding it prefers an election, or a section of the Conservative party voting no confidence in their own government. That might change rapidly, but, unless and until it does, the parliament and government returned in a general election would still face the same choices.
Parliament can take control, but it has to decide what to do with it. The choices it faces are deal, no-deal, or either the extension or revocation of Article 50. At some point the House of Commons will need to find a majority for one of those: if it does not, one will be imposed on it.
The writer is senior fellow at the Institute for Government, a think-tank