Cabinet ministers are ready to back plans to compel Theresa May to implement whatever ‘Plan B’ Brexit wins the backing of parliament, HuffPost UK has been told.
Fresh moves to allow the House of Commons to seize control of the shape of the UK’s exit from the EU emerged on Monday, with former Tory ministers Nick Boles and Dominic Grieve both keen to give MPs the final say.
Both men denied plotting a “coup” against the prime minister, but insisted that with her deal facing almost certain defeat on Tuesday it was time to look ahead at new ways to break the deadlock.
Ahead of the crunch Commons vote on the PM’s deal, the race for an alternative way forward intensified as International Trade Secretary Liam Fox became the first senior minister to admit the prospect of defeat. “I think it’s unlikely we will win the vote tomorrow to be frank,” he told BBC News.
Ministers are still in the dark about precisely what ‘Plan B’ May is planning, but some of her top team believe that a series of indicative votes should be held to test opinion and give the EU a clear idea of what it can negotiate.
The votes would find a consensus on options such as a customs union, a Norway-style trade links, or a second referendum.
Parliament could then be allowed to “instruct” the PM to follow its wishes, ministers believe.
With the expected help of Commons Speaker John Bercow, MPs could be allowed to change Commons rules so motions proposed by backbenchers take precedence over government plans.
Thanks to former minister Grieve, May has only three days in which to produce her own plans should she be defeated.
“The PM won’t want to break any of her red lines. But this is about instructing her to act,” one Cabinet minister said.
Pointing to the example of recent legal advice on Brexit, they said the precedent had been set that MPs could force changes in government policy, giving ministers effectively no option but to accept the will of the Commons.
“The Attorney General complied with the wishes of Parliament after the contempt motion was passed and you can imagine something similar here.”
Another minister said: “It’s obvious that the Commons won’t tolerate a no-deal. It’s also clear that it will have to make the decision for her. And she won’t be able to ignore Parliament.”
One Cabinet member added: “This is specifically in the context of making clear that a no-deal will be blocked and if so what the alternatives are. Dominic [Grieve] has been outstanding on all this.
“Ever since the election, I’ve thought that this would be decided by the House of Commons, through indicative votes or something like that.
“This week is relatively predictable. The vote will be lost, the no confidence vote will be lost, the the government will be required to come back with a response.
“The markets may be quite calm on the basis that the potential for no-deal is shrinking every day. We are past the point of hardest Brexit. As every day passes, we are heading to a softer Brexit. That’s what my colleagues should understand too. I am amazed the Brexiteers can’t see that.”
Several ministers believe that May may not seek Cabinet approval for her own ‘Plan B’. “The way things are with the lack of confidentiality about cabinet meetings, it would leak. But to unilaterally give a personal response is equally problematic,” one said.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told Radio 4′s Today programme that he agreed with plans to give more power to MPs, even if that made life difficult for a future Labour government.
“We’ve seen parliament at its best, forcing the executive to not take parliament for granted any more…Governments have to take much more account of the will of parliament,” he said.
It emerged on Sunday that Grieve was ready to use parliamentary business motions and other mechanisms to give MPs a direct say over Brexit.
In a separate move, Boles unveiled a plan to give the liaison committee, made up of the chairs of senior select committees, the final say to come up with an alternative plan within the next three weeks.
He told BBC Radio 4 that the government would be “legally required to implement” the plans, but MPs “would be doing so in the context where they [ministers] had failed and failed and failed again” to get their own proposals approved by a majority.
However, liaison committee chairwoman Sarah Wollaston, who personally prefers a second referendum, swiftly hit back the Boles plan.
Other MPs are drafting different version of moves to compel ministers to act.
Pressed by reporters in the issue on Monday, May said: “You talk about a Brexit deal imposed by parliament, if you look at what has been said across parliament, nobody has come up with an alternative Brexit deal that is negotiable and that delivers on the result of the referendum.
“What I’m concerned about is… the real prospect is we could see a stymying Parliament or people in Parliament trying to operate in a way that frustrates Brexit.”
Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson dismissed attempts to allow MPs to hijack the process.
“I notice all this stuff about complicated jiggery-pokery for Parliament to frustrate the deal,” he told LBC Radio. “I don’t think that really can be done. I think that we are really playing with fire.”