No-deal Brexit: Can MPs overrule the new prime minister?

Boris Johnson

As Brexit day approaches, two questions are swirling around the Westminster village: Will Boris Johnson pursue a no deal and could MPs stop him?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the UK will leave the EU on 31 October “do or die” – even if it means walking away without a deal.

With no ongoing formal negotiations with the EU, this is looking increasingly likely.

What is no deal?

A no-deal Brexit means the UK would immediately leave the EU with no agreement in place about the “divorce” process – or how they separate.

Overnight, the UK would leave the single market and customs union – arrangements designed to help trade between EU members.

Many politicians and businesses say this would damage the economy.

Others say the risks are exaggerated.

Theresa May couldn’t persuade her own MPs to support her agreement with the EU, which would have avoided no deal. That’s why she resigned.

Unless Mr Johnson can get his own – as yet non-existent – Brexit deal passed, the UK will face the prospect of leaving without an agreement at the end of October.

The alternative would be to extend the deadline again – or cancel Brexit altogether.

  • No-deal Brexit: What you need to know
  • What is the UK government is doing to prepare?
  • What could no deal mean for the Irish border?

How could the prime minister make no deal happen?

In theory, unless a new plan is agreed, Mr Johnson does not need to do anything for a no-deal Brexit to happen.

This is because the UK’s departure on 31 October is already written into law. He could just run the clock down.

But it is not as simple as this.

Most MPs in the UK Parliament are against leaving without a deal. And they could try to stop it from happening.

There had been rumours that the government could close Parliament to prevent MPs from doing anything to impede the plan to leave on 31 October.

But this was effectively ruled out after MPs changed a piece of legislation to make sure Parliament was open for at least part of October.

  • What the EU elections tell us about support for Brexit

What can MPs do to stop no deal?

At this point, MPs have two potential routes: take control of Parliament’s timetable or get rid of the government.

Neither would guarantee blocking a no deal Brexit, but they could lead them there.

Route 1: Take control of parliament

If the government tries to pass new laws, MPs could attempt to make changes that would force the government’s hand.

It was initially assumed that the UK would need new laws to prepare for a no deal, for example on agriculture and trade.

But ministers have said no legislation will be needed between now and exit day, potentially blocking this route for MPs

MPs could try to take control of the timetable and set aside time to pass a new law that would block a no deal.

The legislation could force the government to request another extension from the EU.

But this would not be easy because the government controls the calendar in the House of Commons.

There are other ways rebellious MPs could take control, for example through emergency debates, which are granted by the Speaker of the House and are usually non-binding.

Allowing time for these debates and giving them more power will be down to the Speaker, John Bercow, who could play a crucial role in the next few months.

Route 2: Bring down the government

Seen by some as the “nuclear option”, MPs have the option to vote out the government.

This could happen as early as 4 September and Jeremy Corbyn has said he would call a vote of no confidence “at the appropriate and very early time to do it”.

  • Is it too late to hold an election before Brexit?

If a majority of MPs vote against the government, a formal process kicks off under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act:

  • A period of 14 calendar days allows the prime minister to prove he holds the confidence of Parliament
  • During this time, if another MP can prove they hold the support of a majority of MPs the current prime minister is expected to give way
  • If no government has been formed after 14 days, a general election will be triggered. This would take at least five weeks

The 14-day period could produce a temporary government of national unity, whose main aim could be to request an extension from the EU and organise an election in the meantime.

This would require a huge amount of cross-party cooperation – not seen since the Second World War – to bring together MPs from different parties who would be happy to serve together.

  • What is a vote of no confidence?

But there have been reports in the last few weeks that the current team in Number 10 – led by Mr Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings – could ignore convention and refuse to give up power to a new administration even if it can prove it has the confidence of the House of Commons.