This dangerous amendment could strip the Government of its power
Anyone who has ever been through the Whips Office would have been shaken to the core by the idea of the standing orders – the rules that regulate the Commons – being torn up, depriving the Government of the ability to schedule its business. I’d heard this was afoot, but seeing in black and white that the Government thought it was possible was shocking.
There’s no doubt No 10 intended to shock. It is clearly in their interests to encourage Brexiteers to realise that there is very little the ardently anti-no-deal MPS will not do, but if this amendment is tabled, the Government needs to have woken up every Conservative MP to the dangers.
It would be a huge risk to let the idea grow that this is an innocuous move that one could safely back. It is dressed up as handing control to backbenchers, but in reality it is handing control to Labour and the opposition parties plus a small group of rebel Conservatives.
It is alleged that Dominic Grieve wants to secure a change to standing orders so that motions proposed by backbenchers take precedence. One assumes that this is to secure an indicative vote on options including a second referendum.
However, motions on their own cannot bind the Government, nor override existing legislation, so the second piece of the puzzle is how to change the standing orders to allow the introduction of a Bill by backbenchers and its timetabling through the Commons.
To do this you would need three things: an opportunity to secure a Commons vote, an amendment and a majority.
The opportunity: changes to standing orders would not normally be allowed as amendments to motions such as that on the deal, but it is not difficult to imagine the Speaker accepting them. There are therefore at least two chances: an amendment to the motion to approve the deal, which would need to be tabled on Monday, or an amendment to the “next steps” vote if the deal is defeated or amended. If the Government were to bring a business motion to govern the next steps vote, it would be a third vehicle.
The amendment: you would need to target the “arrangement of public business” and further empower the back-bench business committee; you might target government control over daily business, and you would look at empowering backbenchers to programme Bills.
The majority: the opposition parties and seven or more Conservative MPS willing to turn the Government into a bystander.
If passed, the Government would retain the title of executive but lose the power that goes with it. Given the lack of a majority, the reality would be that Parliament would be able to legislate at will with a handful of Conservative or DUP rebels. There would be no stability and such changes would likely expedite a general election. Nikki da Costa was director of legislative affairs at No 10 from September 2017 to November 2018