BREXIT UPDATE 38:  Parliament Shows its Strength

I ended Brexit Update 37 with the news that, during the July 9 ITV debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, Johnson had once again refused to rule out proroguing (ie suspending) Parliament in order to force through a No Deal Brexit – and that, on that same day, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, had once again failed to select a cross-party amendment, tabled by the Remain-supporting Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, designed to prevent this scenario. However, there have been important — if highly complicated –developments.

The amendment in question was tabled as an addition to a bill on Northern Ireland, called the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Bill (2017-2019). Northern Ireland has been without a devolved power-sharing government for two and a half years, as a result of a bitter dispute between the Unionist/Loyalist DUP and the Republican/Nationalist Sinn Fein.  Talks are continuing between the two parties; and the Bill is designed to postpone the mandatory holding of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and keep public services running in the meantime, in order to give the parties “more time and space” to reach a deal, in the words of the Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley.[1]  It is in itself a simple, technical bill, but it has become a peg on which to hang amendments intended to prevent the prorogation of Parliament as the October 31 Brexit deadline approaches (other amendments have also been added to this bill, on same-sex marriage and abortion).

Though Dominic Grieve’s main amendment was not chosen, the Speaker did select on July 9 another cross-party amendment to this bill, also tabled by Grieve, requiring the government to produce fortnightly reports on the situation in Northern Ireland until December.  The main amendment that was not selected had stipulated that MPs should be recalled to debate these reports in the event that Parliament was closed in the autumn.   The subsidiary amendment that was selected was passed by the Commons by a single vote, after a Government Whip forgot to vote.  She was seen covering her face with her hands after the result was announced.[2]  But, without the main amendment, this one lacked the ability to prevent prorogation, since it meant that the government need only produce written reports.  But, as it turned out, this narrowly successful subsidiary amendment was a first building-block towards achieving Grieve’s aim.

On Wednesday July 17, the Northern Ireland Bill reached the House of Lords; and an amendment was tabled there that built on the Grieve amendment that had been passed.  The Lords amendment, tabled by the crossbench peer David Anderson, with support from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, stipulated that the fortnightly reports should be debated by Parliament within five calendar days of being produced – thus ensuring that Parliament would sit in the weeks leading up to the Brexit deadline of October 31.  Anderson’s amendment passed by a majority of 103; 13 Conservative peers rebelled against the government whip to vote in favour.[3]

The next day, July 18, the Bill returned to the Commons for further amendments.  A new cross-party Commons amendment, tabled by the Labour MP Hilary Benn and the Conservative MP Alistair Burt, further strengthened the Lords amendment that had itself built on the initial Grieve amendment.  The new Commons amendment specified that, if ministers could not meet the obligation to update the Commons (ie to bring the fortnightly report to a sitting House of Commons for debate), in the event that Parliament was prorogued or adjourned, Parliament would have to meet on the day necessary to comply with the obligation for ministerial update and debate and for the following five weekdays.

The amendment passed by 41 votes: 315 in favour and 274 opposed.  17 Conservative MPs rebelled against the Tory whip to vote in favour.  The Culture, Media and Sport Minister, Margot James, resigned from her post in order to vote for the amendment. 30 Tory MPs abstained, including no less than four Cabinet Ministers: the Chancellor, Philip Hammond; the International Development Secretary, Rory Stewart; the Business Secretary, Greg Clarke; and the Justice Secretary, David Gauke.   One Labour MP voted against; nine abstained (clearly MPs from Leave-supporting areas). [4]

The Bill still does not entirely prevent prorogation of Parliament in order to force through a No Deal Brexit; but it makes such a scenario very much more difficult for Boris Johnson, who is expected by everyone to be announced on Tuesday as the new Tory Prime Minister.  Above all, the voting reveals the strength of Parliament and the scale of potential rebellion by Conservative MPs against the new government, not only in the extreme event that Johnson seeks to prorogue Parliament, but in general in relation to a prospective showdown on a No Deal Brexit in the near future between Parliament and the Prime Minister – a conflict that can only be resolved by a General Election.

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-48886253

[2] https://www.buryfreepress.co.uk/news/jo-churchill-mp-forgot-to-cast-vote-on-key-no-deal-brexit-amendment-9076209/

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/17/commons-showdown-looms-after-peers-pass-amendment-to-block-no-deal

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-49030225

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/18/mps-pass-amendment-seeking-to-thwart-no-deal-prorogation