Plotters prepare for a ‘very British coup’
Theresa May has been warned that her government ‘‘will lose its ability to govern’’ after Downing Street uncovered a bombshell plot by senior MPs to seize control of Brexit negotiations and sideline the prime minister.
A cross-party group of senior backbenchers – including former Tory ministers – plan what one senior figure branded a ‘‘very British coup’’ if May loses the crunch vote on her Brexit deal tomorrow.
At least two groups of rebel MPs are plotting to change Commons rules so motions proposed by backbenchers take precedence over government business, upending the centuries-old relationship between executive and legislature.
Downing Street believes that would enable MPs to suspend article 50, putting Brexit on hold, and could even lead to the referendum result being overturned – a move that would plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.
May’s team got wind of the plot on Thursday evening, local time, when one of the conspirators – a former cabinet minister – was overheard by the government chief whip Julian Smith discussing the plan in the MPs’ cloakroom. He commissioned written advice from legal experts, who warned May her government’s future was at stake.
Smith briefed May on Friday on the explosive document, which says: ‘‘Such an attempt represents a clear and present danger to all government business.
‘‘Without control of the order paper, the government has no control over the House of Commons and the parliamentary business and legislation necessary to progress government policies. The government would lose its ability to govern.’’
A senior government source said that May and her aides were ‘‘shellshocked’’ and declared: ‘‘This could be game over for Brexit.’’ Another added: ‘‘This sounds very like a very British coup – and one that has profound implications for democracy.’’
Crucially, Commons sources say the Speaker, John Bercow, is likely to allow the gambit to proceed. It can now be revealed that one of the rebel ringleaders, the former attorney general Dominic Grieve, visited Bercow in his official residence on Tuesday, the day before the Speaker tore up Commons rules to help remainer MPs.
On Saturdaynight, as examining plans to seize control of the Commons timetable. He said: ‘‘I have no doubt that lots of people may be looking at all sorts of ideas since we are in a deepening national political crisis.’’
Britain will leave the EU on March 29 unless there is a new act of parliament overturning existing Brexit legislation. Senior Brexiteers assume this is not possible as the government controls the timetable of Commons business. The plot, which May’s aides believe is being orchestrated by Sir Oliver Letwin, an ally of David Cameron, would torpedo that assumption.
If, as expected, May loses the crunch vote on Tuesday evening, local time, she must table a new plan by the following Monday. Tory whips believe plotters would then table an amendment to May’s plan (or the business motion that precedes it), proposing that future motions setting out the business of the House could be tabled by nongovernment members. If that passes, MPs, not ministers, could shape the future of Brexit.
Today, members of the ‘‘Norway group’’, which backs membership of the single market, will meet to discuss their plans. That group includes Letwin, Nick Boles, Nicky Morgan and Labour’s Stephen Kinnock.
Boles yesterday confirmed he wants to make it illegal to leave with no deal. He said: ‘‘We have a mechanism which will give parliament control of the Brexit negotiations and ensure we do not leave the EU without a deal on March 29. To change a law you need to pass a law. I am working on ways to achieve that outcome. We will be publishing it on Tuesday.’’
Pro-European demonstrators raise flags to protest, outside parliament in London as the debate over Brexit drags on.