British lawmakers will next week pull the trigger on their plans to stop Prime Minister Boris Johnson leading the country out of the European Union without an exit deal. Johnson says he still wants to convince Brussels to give him an improved exit agreement, but will leave without one on Oct. 31 if he has to.
A narrow majority of lawmakers in parliament has previously voted to try to stop this outcome, known as a “no-deal” Brexit. But, with only a few weeks left before the deadline and limited time in parliament to play with, what options do they have to block the prime minister?
Change the law
British law says that the country will end its membership of the EU on Oct. 31. That date can only be changed by the government of the day. This means members of parliament need to find a way to pass a law that requires Johnson to ask the EU to delay Brexit and then, if the EU agrees to the request, make the required changes to domestic legislation.
In extremis, a law change could even be used to force Johnson to revoke the government’s intention to quite the EU. However, passing a law against the government’s wishes is not easy because ministers have almost complete control over the parliamentary agenda. To do it requires lawmakers to clear three main hurdles: find a procedural opportunity to hijack the agenda in parliament; win several votes to pass a bill through the lower chamber; and then win a series of votes in the upper chamber.
Each stage is fraught with risk. To gain control of the parliamentary agenda will likely require a helping hand from the Speaker John Bercow, who has in the past been supportive of efforts to hinder a no-deal exit. The opposition Labour Party is hoping to use an emergency debate next week to do this, but the method is untested.
To win votes in the 650-seat House of Commons will require members of Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party to rebel against their leader. They have proven willing to do this in the past, but some recent decisions have come down to a single vote.
The House of Lords, which is largely pro-EU, could also prove a stumbling block if eurosceptic Conservative lawmakers there try to filibuster. Above all, each of these steps take parliamentary time, which is in short supply after Johnson announced on Wednesday that he would suspend parliament for more than a month between mid-September and mid-October.
Nevertheless, the approach has been successful once before, earlier this year when parliament passed a law demanding then-Prime Minister Theresa May delay Brexit. In the end, she decided to do so anyway, so the effectiveness of that legislation was not fully tested.
Change the government
Parliament can collapse Johnson’s government using a no-confidence vote, creating two opportunities for lawmakers to try to stop a no-deal Brexit.
Firstly, if the government were to lose a no-confidence vote, this could lead to an election that brings in a new government with a strategy to either delay Brexit or revoke the decision to leave the EU.
But it is within Johnson’s power to delay any election until after Oct. 31, and his aides have indicated he is willing to take this step to ensure Britain’s exit. The second method is untested and harder to predict. Losing a confidence vote triggers a 14-day period in which a new administration can be formed.
If the majority who voted against Johnson were able to prove, by holding a vote in parliament, that they could form a stable alternative government they could try to extend Britain’s EU membership beyond Oct. 31. However, so far rival parties have been reluctant to rally around a single candidate who could lead an alternative
In addition, the electoral legislation allowing for this was introduced in 2011 and has never been tested in this way. It has been criticized for not defining exactly how the 14-day period would work and who has the power to do what during it.
Johnson could argue that he is not obliged to resign, decide to hold out until an election is triggered, and then hold that election after Oct. 31.