At first, it seems fanciful. A backbench MP, Nick Boles, proposes to take power away from the government and place it in the hands of an alternative opposition. Not a party or a faction, but the Liaison Committee, the 36 MPs who chair other committees. They’d call the shots.
Can one backbencher usurp power in this way? It’s ambitious. But under the British system, government reports to parliament, not the other way around. Usually the distinction is moot, because government can control the Commons. But when that control collapses, every kind of mischief becomes possible.
Until a couple of months ago I was director of legislative affairs under Theresa May in No. 10, where it was my job to look at parliamentary procedures. It’s quite a minefield. Right now, the civil servants will be asking what it means to have ‘parliament’ take control — and whether the likes of Oliver Letwin and Nicky Morgan could outsmart the government. They’ll find the Boles plan radical, in places peculiar, but certainly threatening.
As things stand, Britain will leave the EU without a deal on 29 March: parliament authorised this when Article 50 was triggered. This remains the default, unless a rival plan is put to a vote, approved, and backed by legislation. The government does not want this to happen. But Boles intends to force its hand.
He’d need enough votes to control the timetable. Labour might provide those votes, to embarrass the Tories without having to take responsibility for anything that happens subsequently. He’d have to get his legislation through both Houses before 11 February, and aim for just a day of scrutiny in the Commons. He then wants to oblige ministers to answer to their new masters at the Liaison Committee, giving full government support so that they can come up with their own Brexit plan by 5 March. This would be put to a vote by 7 March.
If the Boles plan is properly drafted then it should work. Many cabinet members (such as Philip Hammond) may be all for it. I cannot see any procedural obstacle to this complete upheaval in how government works. The Speaker, as guardian of the Standing Orders (the written rules of parliament), should have been the check on such a move. But if I were still in No. 10, I’d be urgently seeking the advice of clerks, whips, and legal experts across government. This is no time to rely on just one person’s knowledge.
Some have suggested thwarting any attempt to extend EU membership by refusing to pay the associated costs. But the funds are already authorised by existing laws which have not yet been repealed. And unless I am missing something, the rule that only ministers can authorise government expenditure in this way depends on the old Standing Orders. Which are being torn up.
However, there is another House to get through. Nick Boles imagines that the House of Lords will be delighted with his plan, and will fall into line. There is no doubt their lordships lean towards Remain but, like the Liaison Committee MPs, they’d dislike being taken for granted. They may see his Bill largely as a play for time, but they may kick up a fuss about any wider ambitions.
Some have suggested that the Queen might refuse to sign it. This is possible. But the last monarch to act in this way was Queen Anne in 1708 (she refused to sign the Scottish Militia Bill) and it’s unlikely. Ministers cannot stop approved legislation being sent to the palace.
So yes, the Nick Boles plan should be taken very seriously if it gathers support. It may all be a ploy to force the government to rule out no-deal Brexit. Or it may be real. And once such a manoeuvre has been tried, the instability it introduces is likely to lead to a general election and maybe a Corbyn government. This has never been attempted before. Is it crazy? Absolutely. But possible? Terrifyingly so.
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