POLITICS
20/12/2018 15:13 GMT | Updated 21/12/2018 08:55 GMT

Labour And Tory Rebels Plot Parliamentary Ambush To Halt No-Deal Brexit In New Year

Finance bill targeted first as ministers consider suspending February recess.

A string of New Year parliamentary ambushes is being planned by Labour and Tory MPs in a last-ditch effort to avoid a no-deal Brexit, HuffPost has learned.

A series of rolling “contempt” motions, plus multiple “killer” amendments to key Brexit legislation are being drafted in response to Theresa May’s new £4bn preparations for the UK to leave the EU without an agreement.

The government’s finance bill, which enacts the budget and sets taxes for the coming year, could even be blocked, as well as “estimates” for Whitehall spending.

In one example of the tactics, Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn teamed up with Tories Nicky Morgan and Sir Oliver Letwin on Thursday to table an amendment to the finance bill.

The amendment prevents the government from changing taxes in the event of a no-deal scenario without parliament’s explicit consent.

Amid continued opposition to the prime minister’s plans, ministers are also considering cancelling MPs’ February “ski-ing week” recess in a bid to give extra time for all the new laws and regulations need in time for “exit day” on March 29.

Meanwhile, hardline Brexiteer MPs backing no-deal are determined to hold up proceedings until after February 21, the last possible date on which parliament could set in motion any general election held before Brexit.

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Labour's Yvette Cooper

The cabinet this week “ramped up” no-deal contingency planning across Whitehall, while the EU revealed on Wednesday its own last-resort proposals, including severe restrictions on transport, travel and other rights.

Labour and several anti-Brexit Tory backbenchers are determined to use every possible parliamentary procedure to avoid the UK crashing out of the EU next spring, if May’s plans are defeated in the “meaningful vote” planned for the week of January 14.

Commons leader Andrea Leadsom confirmed on Thursday that the “meaningful vote” could be followed by a series of alternative motions.

Referring to her new amendment to the finance bill, which will be heard the second day the Commons returns on January 8, Cooper said it showed the cross-party opposition to no-deal.

“The risks to our economy and security from no-deal are far too high and it would be irresponsible to allow it to happen. I do not believe parliament would support no-deal and ministers should rule it out now.

“But if the government won’t rule it out, then parliament needs to find opportunities to stop the country reaching the cliff edge by accident - starting with the finance bill in the first week back, then looking at every other legislative opportunity too. That is why we have tabled this amendment with cross party support.”

Following the fall of May’s deal, MPs are plotting a series of “indicative” votes to find a Commons majority on issues such as extending Article 50, holding a new referendum and avoiding no-deal.

Should No.10 try to ignore the non-binding votes, a rolling series of “contempt of parliament” motions would be held to force May and her ministers to comply.

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Commons Speaker John Bercow

Crucially, once any “indicative” vote is passed by a majority, government insiders believe Commons Speaker John Bercow would use his discretion to view those votes to allow a raft of amendments that would not normally be considered ‘in scope’ for various Brexit bills.

The rebel MPs will then hijack the bills - which are needed for Brexit with or without May’s deal - with amendments aimed at achieving a two-month extension of Article 50, a revocation of Article 50 or even a second referendum.

Ministers are braced for a series of Brexit bills to be hit by the rearguard action. As well as the main EU withdrawal agreement bill, others would be the new immigration and social security coordination (EU withdrawal) bill due to be published on Thursday, as well as the trade bill, fisheries bill and the healthcare (international arrangements) bill.

But the finance bill, which has yet to have its report stage, could also be targeted by MPs who want to cause maximum disruption for the government, one Whitehall source confirmed.

Senior government figures confirmed they were braced for the guerrilla tactics against no-deal, but believe ministers will be powerless to resist politically the wishes of parliament.

Some insiders even believe the planned obstruction could help May focus the minds of her rebellious Brexiteer backbenchers.

“If we faced a series of rolling contempt motions, we would have little choice but to bring forward legislation. That’s why the message to Tory Brexiteers is that if you don’t back the PM’s deal, you’re really going to end up with no Brexit at all, or at least not anything that looks like Brexit,” one source said.

“We cannot pull these bills of our own accord, they are needed. So there’s a real risk of extension of Article 50 or a second referendum, neither of which Brexiteers want.”

Although Labour MPs and its shadow cabinet are divided on options such as a second referendum, almost all of them are united behind “guerrilla” tactics to stop no-deal.

Experts in constitutional and parliamentary procedure believe there are several credible ways for MPs to try to delay or block a no-deal outcome.

Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society, said that even if May got her deal passed on a meaningful vote, the EU withdrawal agreement bill “is going to take up an awful lot of time”.

“There are still a number of other Brexit bills that have got to be put on the statute book by March, and also on top of all that we’ve got to deal with the statutory instruments - the regulations that need to be dealt with by exit day to amend the existing statute book to prepare for life outside the EU. And at the moment the government has only brought forward about a third of those.”

Maddy Thimont Jack, of the Institute for Government, told HuffPost that the trade bill, currently held up in the House of Lords, was “definitely in the firing line” because it was subjected to a major attempt this summer to force ministers to adopt a European Economic Area (EEA) model for Brexit.

The finance bill has yet to have its remaining stages completed in the Commons and MPs could vote against its third reading to effectively stop the government from levying income and corporation tax for the coming year.

“I do think the finance bill is also a target. It’s a more extreme target, it really will be shots fired by MPs if they try that,” she said.

“You can slightly hold the government hostage in terms of how much money they have access to.” 

MPs could also take the rare step of voting against so-called “supplementary estimates” which are introduced to parliament to approve amended spending in Whitehall departments.

“The challenge is it’s harder to direct the government to do something else,” Thimont Jack said. “I think that’s the problem, firstly you need to find a majority for an alternative to no-deal. If there’s no majority for something else then we are looking at no-deal. Unless they can find that they haven’t got a hope in hell.”

Meanwhile, ministers are actively discussing requiring MPs to sit on Fridays or possibly even Saturdays, as well as cancelling the planned February recess, to get the legislation through on time.

In the House of Lords, the February break is known to many as “ski-ing week” as peers jet off to the slopes around Europe.

One senior Tory MP joked: “I’m just pleased my own ski-ing holiday is booked for earlier than February.”

Ruth Fox said: “One of the issues the government is going to have to confront fairly quickly is what they are going to do about February recess. They are due to go into recess for about two weeks. I just cannot see how that’s possible.”

The PM’s official spokesman conceded that the Brexit deal relied on legislation for implementation.

“There are a number of stages which the deal has to go through in order for it to be ratified with certainty. The UK parliament is one, but following on from that we also have to pass a withdrawal agreement bill and also the European parliament have to ratify this deal.

“There are key bits of legislation which we will be working to get through the House of Commons by exit day. There are a number of bills we need to get through for a no-deal scenario.”

Labour’s own Brexit policy is to call for a general election and if that is rejected to explore options including campaigning for a second referendum.

The party is expected to try and force a no confidence vote in the government some time in January, although it may want to do that after the ‘indicative votes’ are completed. 

The Hansard Society has told HuffPost that with 25 working days needed as notice for an election, the last date parliament could dissolve for an election before Brexit is Thursday February 21. That would allow an election on Thursday March 28 – just a day before exit day in the legislation.

Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott told the BBC Radio 4 on Thursday: “We want to work in parliament first and foremost to block off the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.”