MPs do not have 'legal veto' to stop no-deal Brexit, Commons officials say

Exclusive: vote of no confidence in government may be only way to stop Britain crashing out of EU

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Sunday 28 October 2018 14:51 GMT
What does a no-deal Brexit mean?

Brexit will be a disaster for the social care sector – and for women Parliament does not have a “legal veto” over a no-deal Brexit, House of Commons officials have said – suggesting MPs who want to stop Britain crashing out of the EU will have to find another route.

Instead, Britain will simply crash out of the European Union in March unless an exit deal is approved or MPs find another way to force the government to act.

In written guidance to a member of parliament, seen by The Independent, experts in the House of Commons library said parliament cannot “legally and in isolation prevent a no-deal Brexit” if it votes against Theresa May’s deal.

The Commons chief clark, Sir David Natzler, confirmed that the vote MPs will take on what should happen in the event of no deal also “has no statutory significance”.

The clarification will fuel fears that Britain is heading for a no-deal outcome, amid ongoing doubts over Ms May’s ability to command a parliamentary majority for the agreement she hopes to strike.

Many MPs believe that if no agreement is reached with the EU or if parliament rejects Ms May’s deal, the Commons would be able to force the prime minister to go back to Brussels to renegotiate, or else to put the decision to the public.

However, they would need to find a new mechanism to do so after Commons officials confirmed that, from a legal perspective, parliament has little scope to stop Britain leaving the EU next March regardless of whether Ms May’s planned deal is approved.

The Commons library said: “The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 provides three possible staging posts at which point parliament will be able to ‘have a say’ in a no-deal scenario, but none of them provide parliament with a legal veto over Brexit.

“They would give parliament an opportunity to ‘have a vote’ on the government’s proposed course of action in the absence of a deal, but not, as such, a vote on whether to accept or reject no deal.”

Under the terms of the EU withdrawal act, if no agreement is reached with Brussels or if MPs vote down Ms May’s deal, the government must inform parliament of how it plans to proceed and allow MPs a vote on this.

However, the vote will be on a “neutral motion” that is likely to say merely that the Commons has “considered” the government’s plan. MPs cannot, through that vote, legally compel ministers to take any particular course of action, according to officials, meaning the government could legally push ahead with its plan without parliament’s support.

The Commons library said the vote on the government’s proposed strategy “has no direct legal effects”, meaning that even if MPs voted against no deal, it “does not mean that voting down the motion can, legally an in isolation, prevent a no-deal Brexit”.

Sir David confirmed this, telling the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee: “What happens to the motion has no statutory significance anyway, even if it is agreed, disagreed, amended, adjourned or whatever; it just says that there will be a debate.

“The outcome of the debate has no statutory significance.”

However, some Tory MPs said the political pressure if ministers ignored the will of parliament would be so great that it would likely lead to Ms May’s government being toppled in a vote of no confidence.

Keir Starmer at Labour conference: 'We do not accept that the choice is whatever the PM manages to cobble together or no deal'

One former Tory minister told The Independent: “Parliament could indicate by motion that it doesn’t like what the government is doing and say, for example, ‘We think the government ought to immediately apply to extend the leave date, extend Article 50 and consider its revocation’.

“The government could then say ‘can’t, shan’t, won’t’, in which case the government would quite possibly cease to exist, either triggering a general election or installing a government that would do that.”

The ex-minister added: “The political pressure that can be exercised is significant and could feasibly bring the government down.”

Potential political ramifications aside, the confirmation that parliament will likely have no legally binding vote to stop a no-deal Brexit will be seized on by Labour MPs who, as The Independent revealed earlier this month, are minded to support Ms May’s deal because they fear the only alternative is Britain crashing out of the EU.

One, Stoke-on-Trent Central MP Gareth Snell, said: “The confirmation that there is no legal veto over no deal confirms what I and some colleagues feared.

“We shouldn’t blindly accept any old deal the prime minister presents, but Labour should rethink our red lines and think long and hard about whether voting down a deal which meets some of our tests is the sensible thing to do if the alternative is no deal.

“Labour is absolutely opposed to no deal, so if we vote down the deal we must be very clear in what we would do next to deliver a deal that protects jobs.”

The Labour leadership believes that if Ms May’s deal is rejected parliament could force her to either return to Brussels or call a general election or fresh referendum.

Ms May has previously insisted that MPs will only be able to choose between her deal and a no-deal Brexit.

However, her stance appears to have softened in recent days.

Asked last week what would happen if no deal is agreed, Ms May told MPs: “If, at the end of the negotiation process, both sides agreed that no deal was there, that would actually come back to this House, and then we would see what position the House would take in the circumstances of the time.”

And earlier this week she reportedly told the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs that she would not be able to speak for the Commons in the case of a no-deal outcome.

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