Last Thursday the Government was defeated by 274 votes to 315 on an amendment to a Northern Ireland Bill that could precipitate a constitutional crisis this week. Four Cabinet Ministers abstained and 17 Conservative backbenchers voted against their own party.
The amendment requires Ministers to report to the House of Commons every two weeks on progress towards restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive but its real purpose was to prevent the Prime Minister asking the Queen to prorogue Parliament until after 31st October.
Mrs. May will resign as Prime Minister on 24th July and will most probably be replaced by Boris Johnson. He has refused to rule out a no-deal Brexit despite the fact that the House of Commons has twice voted against that outcome. A no-deal Brexit is the default option if a better deal cannot be negotiated with the EU by 31st October. EU leaders have indicated that there is no alternative to the deal agreed with Mrs. May and rejected by the Commons three times.
Mr. Johnson is determined that we should leave the EU on 31st October and if a no-deal Brexit is the only option he will take it. Given MPs opposition to a no-deal Brexit, Johnson has not ruled out asking the Queen to prorogue Parliament to prevent MPs blocking it. The amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill was MPs way of removing that option by requiring Ministers to report to Parliament every fortnight in September and October. If the amendment is passed by the House of Lords on 22nd July it will become law that Ministers must obey.
The case for this action was explained by Philip Hammond, the outgoing Chancellor of the Exchequer who, like his fellow abstainers, does not expect or wish to serve in a Johnson Government. He has said, “The Conservative Party has always, at its core, had a fundamental belief in the importance of strong institutions – and in representative democracy there can be no more vital institution than its Parliament. It should not be controversial to believe that Parliament be allowed to sit and have a say, during a key period in our country’s history.” Others have described the possibility of suspending Parliament as a “constitutional outrage”.
The rebellion might not end there. Like Hammond, the rebels would not rule out a vote of no confidence in a Johnson Government to prevent any Brexit that does not have explicit Parliamentary approval. Were that to happen the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011 requires that if a Government is defeated in such a vote there must be a fortnight in which the Government can persuade Parliament to think again. If Parliament continues to have no confidence in the Government, there must then be a General Election. That would be held 25 days later, taking us close to the 31st October deadline.
There is no way of guessing the likely outcome of such am election. The polls are currently recording the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats making significant gains. If the former collaborated with a diminished Conservative Party, they might still achieve a no-deal Brexit but if a Liberal Democrat led coalition came out on top there would probably be no Brexit at all.
How should we respond to this situation? The health of our democratic system of government is at stake. Indifference and abstention are not responsible options. We need the politicians and parties to tell us clearly and plainly the implications of voting for and against leaving the European Union. We need leadership that listens to the concerns of the public, especially those, like our farmers and those likely to lose their jobs and livelihoods from Brexit. We need well substantiated and intelligibly argued alternative visions for the nations’ future and we need the grace and humility to put the nation’s best interests before our own. Prayer for those objectives is every Christian’s duty.