25 June 2019

Blocking No Deal is easier said than done

By Maddy Thimont-Jack

We are currently waiting to see whether Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will be elected leader of the Conservative Party. The contest should ensure there is a new Prime Minister in place just ahead of summer recess (the House is due to rise on 25 July), but some Conservative MPs have already been threatening to bring down the Government if their new leader is willing to take the UK out of the EU without a deal.

Is such a threat credible?

The most obvious way for rebel Tories to do this would be to team up with the Opposition on a vote of no confidence in the Government. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, if MPs pass a motion saying “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government” then a 14 day period is triggered in which either the incumbent or an alternative government must win the confidence of MPs. If the serving or prospective Prime Minister has not won a motion saying “That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government” before the 14 days are up then a General Election will take place.

There are two important elements to this. First, the Government is only obliged to make time for a vote of no confidence if it is tabled by the Official Opposition. Second, the sitting Prime Minister selects the day the General Election would be held.

But although this appears to be relatively straightforward, the process has never been tested before. So it is unclear what would happen if another MP, for example the leader of the Opposition or even an MP trying to gain cross-party support, wanted to try and win a confidence motion during those 14 days. The Government controls time in the Commons so they could simply not make time for that vote. The Prime Minister could, in theory, sit back and wait for a General Election.

A Prime Minister could also use those 14 days to change tack. If the Conservative Government lost the confidence vote on the basis of its position on a no-deal Brexit, agreeing to rule out No Deal could be a way to win back Conservative MPs. But given the need to keep the DUP on board, as well as the importance of securing the support of the European Research Group of Conservative MPs, winning a confidence vote after such a pivot in policy could still be a challenge.

But if MPs did not want a General Election, there are other ways that they could express their opposition to a new Prime Minister’s Brexit policy. They could vote down any legislation brought before the House – in particular if the new PM tries to pass some of the primary legislation needed for no deal which has been languishing for some time. They could also vote down the ‘estimates’ – which allows the Government to spend money – which would make it extremely difficult for a new prime minister to govern.

Ultimately, though, the timetable could be the biggest challenge. A General Election would need to take place before 31 October to allow a new PM to take the necessary steps to stop no deal (ask for an extension to the Article 50 negotiating period, revoke Article 50 or set out a plan to get a deal through Parliament).

To give enough time both for the 14-day period under the FTPA to expire as well as the 25 working-day campaigning period, a vote would need to be held – at the latest – as soon as MPs came back from recess in early September.

And so, as this timetabling headache makes clear, stating your willingness to bring down the Government to block No Deal is one thing. Actually doing so is another matter.

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Maddy Thimont-Jack is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Government.