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No-deal Brexit: does latest parliamentary vote make it less likely?

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MPs voted on July 18 to back an attempt to stop the UK government from shutting down parliament to push through a no-deal Brexit in late October. Four cabinet ministers abstained and 17 Conservative MPs rebelled over amendments to legislation on Northern Ireland, which led to the government’s defeat on the issue. The bill will now return to the House of Lords. But what does this mean for the prospect of a no-deal Brexit?

Q: Does the defeat for the government mean that parliament can’t be shut down?

It certainly makes it harder, but it’s still possible. The power to prorogue – or shut down – parliament ultimately rests with the Queen, so in theory the next prime minister could still ask her to do this. But this would put the monarch in a difficult position. She tries to stay politically neutral and normally accepting a request for prorogation is a formality.

In addition, MPs have been trying to legislate so that government has no choice but to consult with MPs, even if parliament is prorogued. Even if such attempts fail, the scale of the government’s defeat – by a majority of 41 votes – sends yet another clear message that there is no majority in parliament for a no-deal scenario, and that those opposed to it will do everything they can to make the next government’s life difficult if they try to ignore this.

Q: What’s Northern Ireland got to do with it?

MPs have managed to make this statement by effectively hijacking another piece of legislation, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill. The purpose of this bill is to deal with various issues relating to the suspension of the devolved government in Northern Ireland.

However, MPs added numerous amendments, notably regarding the legalisation of abortion and same-sex marriage, and now to try and prevent the prorogation of parliament. As a result, the next prime minister would struggle to suspend parliament at the end of October because MPs will be required to report on the situation in Northern Ireland and the attempts to revive the power-sharing agreement there.

Q: Does the result mean no-deal Brexit is off the table?

Not really. It certainly makes it harder for the next prime minister to force a no-deal Brexit, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. The UK is scheduled to leave the EU on October 31, with or without a deal. By default, the UK will leave without a deal if nothing changes before then. Parliament either has to pass the withdrawal agreement, which is very unlikely, or the UK has to seek another extension to the Article 50 period, which governs the UK’s exit from the EU.

While Conservative leadership hopeful Jeremy Hunt has suggested that he would be willing to do this, his opponent Boris Johnson is much less likely to do so. Even if parliament can find a way to force the next prime minister to ask for an extension, the EU would also need to agree to it. For that to happen, the EU needs to be convinced that doing so would actually achieve something positive.

Q: How else could a possible future government get a no-deal Brexit through parliament?

It is really just a matter of running out the clock. If the next prime minister can make it to October 31 without passing a withdrawal agreement, or seeking an extension to the Article 50 period, then the UK leaves without a deal by default.

Parliament will of course try to make this difficult. It may attempt to hijack other new laws and add new clauses to force the new government to act a certain way. This could see the next prime minister minimise the amount of legislation they put through parliament, reducing the opportunities for parliament to do this, but at the same time making the idea of a “managed no-deal” much harder to achieve.

The other, more substantial option for parliament would be to force a vote of no confidence in either the government or the prime minister. As long as the new prime minister can survive this, they can again get a no-deal by default.

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