Labour defeat hands boost to hard Brexit candidates
Attempt to box in new PM fails on day Johnson launches his campaign
Conservative leadership candidates, including Boris Johnson – who are hoping to force a “deal or no deal” Brexit in October – were handed a boost yesterday when MPs defeated a Labour-led attempt to tie the next prime minister’s hands.
Labour vowed it would not end efforts to stop no deal but the defeat bolstered Johnson’s claim at his leadership launch that MPs would not be prepared to “reap the whirlwind” of halting Brexit entirely.
Tory MPs cheered as the motion was defeated by a majority of 11, after which the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was heard to say: “You won’t be cheering in September.”
The former Conservative MP Nick Boles warned that opponents of a nodeal departure were fast running out of options – apart from a confidence vote – to bring down the government. “No-deal Brexit on 31 October is back to being a racing certainty,” he said.
“It is very hard to see where any further legislative opportunities will come from. So it’s now a question of politics – specifically whether a PM pursuing a no-deal Brexit can command and sustain the confidence of the House of Commons.”
Johnson officially launched his campaign yesterday and Tory MPs will take part in a first round of votes to choose the next prime minister today.
The former foreign secretary said he believed a new government “with a new mandate, a new optimism, a new determination” could leave the EU with an amended deal by 31 October.
However, the leadership frontrunner warned that he was determined to leave the EU by 31 October, whether he had achieved a new deal or not. “I am not aiming for a no-deal outcome. But it is only responsible to prepare vigorously and seriously,” he said.
Johnson refused to say what he would do if he had not secured an improved deal in time for 31 October – or whether he would resign if the deadline were not met or no deal were prevented.
Speaking after the defeat in the Commons, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, said the party would continues its cross-party efforts to stop no deal. “Labour stands ready to use whatever mechanism it can to protect jobs, the economy and communities from the disastrous consequences of a no-deal Brexit,” he said. “Any Tory leadership candidate should know that parliament will continue to fight against no deal.”
One shadow minister said opponents of a
‘Any Tory leadership candidate should know parliament will continue to fight against no deal’ Keir Starmer Shadow Brexit secretary
no-deal Brexit had missed a crucial opportunity and said they believed they had been scuppered by the timing. “This isn’t the end of it. We’ll just have to be doubly creative,” they said. “The timing in the midst of [the] Tory leadership [contest] is poor, but not our choice.”
Eight Labour MPs, including Caroline Flint, John Mann and Graham Stringer voted with the government against the motion and 13 more abstained. Ten Conservative MPs voted with Labour.
The debate before the vote revealed fraying tempers in all wings of both parties. The Labour MP Gareth Snell, who represents the leave-voting seat of Stoke-on-Trent Central, said he regretted not voting for Theresa May’s Brexit agreement. He said he would abstain because he could not countenance parliamentary manoeuvres that would lead to a further delay.
“We will have been responsible for a no-deal Brexit by default because of our inability to make a decision,” Snell said.
The former attorney general Dominic Grieve said he was prepared to resign the Tory whip and go against the government in a no-confidence vote if it would prevent a no-deal Brexit. “I simply have to say, here and now, I will not hesitate to do that if that is what is attempted,” he said.
The motion proposed giving MPs control of the parliamentary agenda in a fortnight’s time. That day could then have been used to begin legislation to prevent the UK leaving the EU without a deal, though it is uncertain what form this would take.
Speaking in the debate, Starmer said MPs had been forced to act because of suggestions from leadership candidates, including Johnson and Dominic Raab that the UK would leave – come what may – on 31 October. Raab had even suggested he would be prepared to prorogue parliament to stop MPs’ efforts to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
“It will introduce a safety valve in the Brexit process and it will be a reminder to all Conservative leadership candidates that this house will take every step necessary to prevent a no deal,” Starmer said.
The motion, which Labour tabled during an opposition day debate, was signed by the former Conservative minister Oliver Letwin and the leaders of the Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Green party.
The Brexit secretary, Steve Barclay, said it was a “blind motion” that gave no indication as to what path MPs would try to pursue to block a no-deal departure, and would have “virtually unlimited scope”.
Tory MPs who said they intended to back the plan included Antoinette Sandbach, Dominic Grieve, Sam Gyimah and Jonathan Djanogly, plus Boles, who had flown back to the UK specifically to vote on the motion.
MPs working across parties believed it was essential to take the opportunity to begin efforts to stop a no-deal Brexit before the next prime minister was installed and prior to the start of the summer recess. There are
no further opposition day debates scheduled. Leadership candidates who have opposed no deal, including Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart, had earlier made it clear they would not back the motion.
But Hancock told the Guardian: “It’s no good just having a Brexit position that is built on either rerunning the old plan, which failed; or threatening no deal, when parliament has voted in the past already to block no deal. No deal isn’t a policy choice that is available to the next prime minister.”
Earlier, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, said Johnson’s Brexit plan was impossible as the UK would not be able to leave the EU with a deal or without a deal by the end of October.
Hammond cast doubt on the viability of the Brexit promises of Johnson and other Tory leader contenders, such as Dominic Raab, as he gave a speech in Westminster.
He said many of the candidates were pledging things they could not deliver during their campaigns which they may have to go back on later. Asked whether Johnson’s plan to leave on 31 October would work, he said: “I don’t think so … I think it’s not sensible for candidates to box themselves into a corner on this. Parliament will not allow a no-deal exit from the EU and our experience has suggested it may not be that easy to secure a deal in parliament.”
The idea of leaving with a deal by that date would be “very difficult or impossible”, he said.
Another candidate, Jeremy Hunt, was also asked about Hammond’s comments and said: “This is a time for skilled negotiation and not empty threats. I’ve always wanted to keep no deal on the table as one of our negotiating levers but we can’t be blind to the fact that there is a strong majority in parliament against no deal and it’s likely that parliament would find a way to block no deal.
“That’s why we need to find a way through this that gets us a deal. And if we want Brexit we need to choose a prime minister who can get us a deal.” clear in the course of the debate that he would be prepared to vote against the Conservatives in a noconfidence motion if a future prime minister tried to take Britain out of the EU without a deal.
“If we get to a point where a prime minister is intent on doing this, the only way of stopping that prime minister would be to bring down that prime minister’s government,” he said. “And I simply have to say here and now I will not hesitate to do that if that is what is attempted, even if it means my resigning the whip and leaving the party.”
The chancellor, Philip Hammond, has hinted he might also be prepared to do the same thing.
With the Conservatives’ majority wafer-thin, those two would not need to be joined by many others to bring down the government.
Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, if a government loses a no-confidence vote, alternative leaders have a fortnight to try to assemble a parliamentary majority – and if they are unable to do so, a general election must be called. Whether that would resolve the Brexit impasse, it is impossible to say.
Johnson at the launch of his party leadership campaign. He said he thought a Brexit deal was still possible
▼ Scenes in parliament yesterday: the government defeated Labour’s Brexit motion by 11 votes
▲ Philip Hammond cast doubt on the viability of contenders’ Brexit pledges