UK Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, July 18 2019. Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE
UK Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, July 18 2019. Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE

London — Members of Britain’s parliament moved to stop the next prime minister forcing the country out of the EU without an agreement. It was a clear warning to Boris Johnson, the favorite to become premier, that he will have a fight on his hands if he tries to deliver a no-deal Brexit.

The pound rose after a mass rebellion from at least 30 Conservative MPs defeated the government and passed measures designed to prevent the next leader closing down parliament to force through a no-deal split against their wishes.

One minister resigned to support the rebellion while a clutch of cabinet heavyweights — including chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond — defied party orders and abstained. The new laws make it far harder for Johnson to carry out his threat and suspend parliament to ensure the UK exits the EU by the end of October.

“The Conservative Party has always, at its core, had a fundamental belief in the importance of strong institutions — and in a representative democracy there can be no more vital institution than its parliament,” Hammond said on Twitter after the result. “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.”

Do or die

Johnson, the favorite to succeed Theresa May as prime minister, has refused to rule out suspending parliament, though he’s said it’s not his preferred option. He insists he will take the UK out of the EU on time, with or without an agreement, “do or die”.

Britain’s governing Conservative Party is in the process of choosing a new leader, with Johnson — the face of the pro-Brexit campaign — the clear front-runner over his rival, the more dovish Jeremy Hunt. The winner is due to be announced on July 23.

After months in which the government defeats have come mainly at the hands of those Tories who back a very hard Brexit, on Thursday, the party’s other wing finally flexed its muscles. MPs defeated the government by 315 votes to 274. Although only 17 Conservatives voted against the government’s ordersabout  another 20, including Hammond, defied instructions and abstained.

Taking control

The practical effect of the result is that it will be difficult for a prime minister to suspend or prorogue parliament if the House of Commons looks like trying to block Brexit. There will also be opportunities for MPs to take control of the agenda to attempt just that.

“It sends a very clear signal that this House won’t accept prorogation or being marginalised in this way,” Dominic Grieve, one of the Conservatives behind the move, said in an interview. “It kills prorogation stone-dead.”

But the deeper signal of the defeat is that replacing May as prime minister will do nothing to change the difficult parliamentary arithmetic she faces. Johnson has won support from ardent Brexiteers by saying he’s open to no-deal. But by doing so he’s turned more moderate Tories against him. Those ministers who abstained are likely to be willing to vote against him if he fires them from the government next week.

Other rank-and-file Conservatives are also feeling emboldened to rebel. Keith Simpson, who has been a Tory MP since 1997, said he had voted against his own government for the first time on Wednesday: “You can get a taste for it.”