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

Boris Johnson eats an ice cream

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Boris Johnson says the UK will leave the EU on 31 October “deal or no deal”

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.

Many MPs oppose no-deal Brexit, but can they stop it now that the government has asked the Queen to suspend Parliament?

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.

Former prime minister 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.

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’s not as simple as that.

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

What can MPs do to stop no deal?

Despite having little time, MPs still have options for trying to block a no-deal Brexit.

Legislation emerged as the preferred course of action, following a cross-party meeting of MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit.

What happens in Parliament is usually up to the government of the day, so MPs would have to find a way to wrest control of the timetable.

Emergency debate

You might hear the phrase “SO24” over the next few weeks. This refers to Standing Order 24, the rule that allows MPs to ask for a debate on a “specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration”.

These debates usually have no power to force action. But it would be possible to give them more teeth if House of Commons Speaker John Bercow allows amendments.

For example, MPs could try to take control of the timetable for a day, to try and force through a whole piece of legislation.

The new law could simply force the PM to request an extension to the Brexit deadline.

Theoretically, there is enough time for this.

Any new law has to pass through all stages of both Houses of Parliament. This would usually take weeks, but it could be done in as little as three days. This happened in April when Yvette Cooper managed to rush through a piece of legislation to force an extension.

But even if MPs managed to force it through in three days, they would probably have to allow for a day to secure and another day to hold the emergency debate. With as few as four sitting days before parliament is prorogued, this could be tight.

One hurdle could come in the House of Lords. Although opponents to no deal have a large majority, peers wanting to block a piece of legislation could talk and talk until there is no time left.

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Some Brexit supporters are campaigning for the UK to leave with no deal

Vote of no confidence

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

This could happen as early as 4 September, the day after Westminster returns from its summer break.

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

After holding a vote of no confidence, MPs would only have a few sitting days to form an alternative government and prove it has majority support in the House of Commons, rather than the full 14 days.

It is unclear what would happen if the PM lost a no confidence vote and Parliament was suspended before the 14-day period was up.

However, there would certainly be political pressure on the government to postpone prorogation.

Pass a deal!

There are only two options that will rule out no deal altogether, rather than postpone the deadline: pass a deal, or cancel Brexit altogether.

It is still possible for MPs to approve a new deal before exit day. This is the course of action ministers say they prefer.

The PM could return from the EU summit in mid-October with a brand new deal, propose it to MPs and get it passed in time for the 31 October deadline.

But the main hurdle here would be whether he has enough time to pass the legislation that is needed to implement the deal – a much more complicated process than the stop-no-deal law.

What else could happen?

It isn’t just MPs who could try and get in the way of the PM’s prorogation plans – others have suggested a legal challenge.

Although it is the government’s decision to prorogue Parliament, it is the Queen who has the power to enact it – but it would be impossible to take the Queen to court.

However, campaigner Gina Miller has sought permission for a judicial review of the PM’s decision.

She told the BBC the case would question Mr Johnson’s advice to the Queen and challenge whether he was using his powers to suspend Parliament and call a Queen’s speech legally.

She hopes the case will be heard before prorogation begins.

Ms Miller said it was not for her to say whether the PM’s plan was legal, but “it was for the courts to decide with evidence”.

Former Prime Minister Sir John Major also raised the prospect of a judicial review in July.

After prorogation was announced, he said he believed Mr Johnson’s motive was to “bypass a Sovereign Parliament that opposes his policy on Brexit” and that he would “continue to seek advice on the legality of this and other matters”.

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