Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s top adviser or evil Brexit mastermind, depending on your perspective, has told friends that the autumn is likely to be “fucking weird”. And we are about to enter what will surely be the weirdest week of this term, as MPs desperately try to block a no-deal Brexit. It will be strange and unpredictable, as they attempt to rip up the parliamentary timetable and introduce their own legislation. They will rely on the Speaker behaving equally abnormally in order to help them get their way. So what could happen over the next week – and how likely are the different options?
1. Emergency debate
This would be a particular type of debate under standing order 24, which would normally have a very boring motion for MPs to vote on at the end, merely acknowledging that the house has debated the matter. In this instance, though, MPs are hoping the Speaker will allow them to amend that motion and take control of the parliamentary timetable. Then they would introduce primary legislation along the lines of a bill passed earlier this year by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Tory Oliver Letwin, forcing Johnson to delay Brexit once again.
This seems the most likely scenario, but it has a number of problems. The first – and this runs like a seam through the whole anti-no-deal camp – is that the politicians who might back it don’t fully agree on what the detail of the legislation should be. Often MPs are quite happy to overlook detail but, in this case, a poorly worded bill could give Johnson the opportunity to wriggle out of getting an extension to the Brexit deadline. If they succeed in getting it through its Commons stages, the MPs then have to hope that the legislation survives the Lords, which is far less likely. It has to receive royal assent before 9 September or it will fail. Hostile peers will try to stop this happening by filibustering the debate.
2. Vote of no confidence
This is Jeremy Corbyn’s favoured option, and one that looks a little more likely now that MPs are panicking about their limited time and options for stopping no deal. The successful rebels could then come together to install some kind of alternative government, either with Corbyn as caretaker prime minister, or a “government of national unity”. Corbyn wants the former for the same reason his opponents in the Lib Dems and anti-no deal Tories are so against it: he would be in Downing Street and therefore voters would find it much easier to imagine him as prime minister when asked to do so in an election. Or there could be a general election, which would take place after the Brexit deadline, meaning that Britain would leave without a deal anyway.
3. The courts
Sir John Major joining forces with Gina Miller in her judicial review of the prorogation of parliament adds some weight to the argument that the courts may yet stop a no-deal exit. But politically this is highly awkward for anti-Brexit campaigners. It will just reinforce Boris Johnson’s already planned election campaign message that he is standing up for the people against the opponents of democracy. The courts may prove very reluctant to be the determinants of how Britain leaves the European Union in any case. The high court has a preliminary hearing for Miller’s case on Thursday.
4. Humble address
This is the most complex and least likely of the options. Dominic Grieve and opposition MPs are drawing up a motion that would express their unhappiness with parliament being prorogued, and appeal to the Queen to stop the process. Critics say it would “drag the Queen into politics”, though a number of MPs who have previously claimed to be fervent republicans have suddenly become ardently keen on the monarchy interfering in Brexit.
That there are so many options still in play is one of the greatest weaknesses of those trying to stop no deal. They are still confused, with just days left to achieve their aims. They have even threatened to set up camp in Church House, Westminster, with an “alternative parliament”, though they don’t seem clear what this would achieve. Given all this confusion, the weirdest thing to happen in this coming week would be MPs managing to agree on one course of action and sticking to it.
Isabel Hardman is the assistant editor of the Spectator