Four weeks ago, MPs tried to wrestle control of the Brexit process from Theresa May — and failed. On Wednesday, things could well be different.
The prime minister’s Europhile opponents feel the parliamentary arithmetic has shifted in their favour, with only 33 days to go before Britain’s scheduled exit from the EU.
Yvette Cooper, a senior Labour MP, and Sir Oliver Letwin, a senior Conservative MP, have been rallying support for a proposal that would force the government to hand power to parliament if no UK-EU withdrawal deal has been approved by March 13.
Under the proposal, which is set to be tabled as an amendment on Wednesday, the government would be legally obliged to offer MPs the option of requesting an extension in the Article 50 exit process beyond March 29. EU leaders have said they are likely to agree to some form of extension, but Mrs May has said she will not ask for one.
A counterproposal, led by Conservative MPs Simon Hart and Andrew Percy, would delay Brexit day to May 23, the start of the European Parliament elections, if parliament in Westminster has not approved a deal by March 12.
In an email to 50 members of the Brexit Delivery Group of moderate Tory MPs, Mr Hart said the amendment “could offer some colleagues who have indicated they might support Letwin-Cooper a way out, whilst also removing the danger of a crashing out at the end of March without a deal”.
The plan seeks to avoid “the constitutional upheaval” of the Cooper amendment, and therefore win Downing Street’s support. But as a result, it does not set out legislative moves to tie the government’s hands. “It is just an expression of opinion,” said Sir Oliver.
An earlier attempt to block a no-deal Brexit, led by Ms Cooper and Tory MP Nick Boles, was defeated on January 29 by a margin of 23 votes. Only 17 Conservatives rebelled against Mrs May, while a total of 27 Labour MPs, uneasy at blocking Brexit, did not vote for the Cooper-Boles plan.
Now the ranks of potential Tory rebels have swollen. Three cabinet ministers — Amber Rudd, Greg Clark and David Gauke — said in a joint newspaper article on Saturday “that it would be better to seek to extend Article 50 and delay our date of departure rather than crash out of the European Union on March 29”. Numerous junior ministers — including business minister Richard Harrington and defence minister Tobias Ellwood — would be likely to follow their lead.
Mrs May suggested on Sunday that rebels would not be sacked, a stance that will hearten those pressing to rule out a no-deal departure.
Meanwhile, her offer of a March 12 deadline seemed insufficient. A person close to the Europhile ministers said they would listen to Mrs May’s statement to parliament on Tuesday but added: “The clock is ticking and no-deal is unacceptable.”
A number of Labour MPs have come round to Ms Cooper’s proposal: Gloria De Piero and Ruth Smeeth, who represent pro-Brexit seats and who abstained in January, told the Financial Times they were likely to vote for it. Another MP who previously abstained, the Conservative Caroline Spelman, is now a signatory to the amendment.
Three factors appear to have tipped the balance against Mrs May: the imminence of the Brexit date; the more modest nature of the amendment; and Ms Cooper’s alliance with Sir Oliver and Dame Caroline, who are seen as less divisive figures than Mr Boles. Unlike the January amendment, this week’s proposal does not indicate how long the extension to Article 50 should be — leaving that to the government.
Nonetheless, critics argue the plan — which requires a new law to be passed within days — is overcomplicated. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Eurosceptic MP, said it would fail to change the EU Withdrawal Act, which lays down March 29 as Brexit day. Others point out that extending Article 50 delays the threat of a no-deal Brexit, rather than removing it altogether. For parliament, taking control may prove a gradual process.