A no-deal Brexit appears increasingly likely on 31 October given the lack of time to secure a new agreement with the EU and the diminishing number of ways in which MPs could block such a process, an influential thinktank has said.

In a report on the likely lead-up to the UK’s departure, the Institute for Government said that MPs merely expressing opposition to no deal would not necessarily be sufficient and that there were limited parliamentary manoeuvres open to them to force the issue.

With the exit date now less than 12 weeks away, should the government reach a new accord with the EU there would only be a slim parliamentary window in which to pass the necessary legislation. Even bringing down the government would be unlikely to see an election take place in time.

“MPs looking to force the government into a change of approach face a huge challenge when parliament returns.” said Joe Owen, the Brexit programme director for the institute. “Even if they can assemble a majority for something, they may find few opportunities to make their move – and time is running out.”

The thinktank’s report – titled Voting on Brexit: Parliament’s Role before 31 October – noted that more than three years on from the referendum, the UK’s options remained the same: leaving with a deal; leaving without a deal; seeking an extension; or revoking article 50.

But while no-deal Brexit would happen by default, and the government has said it does not need to pass any more primary legislation before 31 October for it to happen, a new deal would require Boris Johnson’s government to seal this with the EU over the summer and begin parliamentary work after the Commons recess in September.

Even if this happens – and Johnson is currently declining any new talks with the EU without a commitment from Brussels to ditch the Irish backstop border insurance policy – the current Commons schedule would leave just 22 sitting days to pass the new withdrawal deal.

What is the original ‘backstop’ in the Withdrawal Agreement?

Variously described as an insurance policy or safety net, the backstop is a device in the Withdrawal Agreement intended to ensure that there will not be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, even if no formal deal can be reached on trade and security arrangements.

It would mean that if there were no workable agreement on such matters, Northern Ireland would stay in the customs union and much of the single market, guaranteeing a friction-free border with the Republic. This would keep the Good Friday agreement intact.

Both the UK and EU signed up to the basic idea in December 2017 as part of the initial Brexit deal, but there have been disagreements since on how it would work.

The DUP have objected to it, as it potentially treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK, creating a customs divide in the Irish sea, which is anathema to the unionist party.

Hardline Tory Eurosceptics also object to it, as they perceive it to be a trap that could potentially lock the UK into the EU’s customs union permanently if the UK & EU cannot seal a free trade agreement. That would prevent the country from doing its own free trade deals with nations outside the bloc. 

What was added to May’s withdrawal agreement?

Joint interpretative instrument 

A legal add-on to the withdrawal agreement was given to Theresa May in January 2019 to try and get her deal through the UK parliament. It gives legal force to a letter from Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, the presidents of the commission and council. This stated the EU’s intention to negotiate an alternative to the backstop so it would not be triggered, or, if it was triggered, to get out of it as quickly as possible.

Unilateral statement from the UK 

This set out the British position that, if the backstop was to become permanent and talks on an alternative were going nowhere, the UK believes it would be able to exit the arrangement.

Additional language in political declaration 

This emphasises the urgency felt on both sides to negotiate an alternative to the backstop, and flesh out what a technological fix would look like. However, it failed to persuade the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, who said that while it ‘reduces the risk’ of the UK being trapped in a backstop indefinitely, it does not remove it.

What happens next?

During their campaigns to become prime minister, both Conservative party leadership contenders Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt appear to have declared the Northern Ireland backstop “dead”, and promised to throw it out of any deal they negotiate with the EU. The EU has repeatedly stated that it will not re-open the Withdrawal Agreement for re-negotiation. 

Daniel Boffey, Martin Belam and Peter Walker 

The report said that while a majority of MPs appeared to oppose no deal, they would “need new tactics” to actually block it, given the lack of Brexit-related legislation on to which to tack amendments or new motions, unlike when Theresa May was seeking to pass her deal.

Simply passing motions opposing no deal would not be enough, the report argued, as Johnson’s government has indicated it will not be bound by these. Amending primary legislation would carry more weight, but this would depend on bills being brought to the Commons, which might not happen.

Even what the report called the “nuclear option” of a no-confidence vote against Johnson’s government might not block no deal, the report said, as Johnson could sit out the 14-day period dictated if he lost such a vote, even if a new government seemed viable.

The report said that if an election was called, given a five-week campaign period and a possible week needed to finish parliamentary business before dissolution, it would be very tight to arrange before 31 October.

Such a timetable “would raise big questions for the civil service”, the report added. “Although it could continue to prepare for no deal, as it would be seen as being ‘in the national interest’, it would be restricted in how it communicated about it. It would also make it a more challenging choice for businesses considering investing in no-deal preparations as they may want to await the outcome of the election.”


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