Picture: 123RF/andreykuzmin
Picture: 123RF/andreykuzmin

London — British MPs on Thursday backed proposals to make it harder for the next prime minister to force through a no-deal Brexit by suspending parliament, showing again their determination to stop a divorce from the EU without agreement.

Boris Johnson, the clear frontrunner to succeed Prime Minister Theresa May next week, has said Britain must leave the EU on October 31 with or without a deal. He has refused to rule out suspending, or proroguing, parliament to prevent MPs from passing legislation to block his exit plan if he tries to exit without a deal.

MPs backed a proposal by 315 to 274 that would require parliament to be sitting to consider Northern Irish affairs for several days in September and October even if it was suspended.

They also backed a requirement for ministers to make fortnightly reports on progress towards re-establishing Northern Ireland’s collapsed executive and to give MPs an opportunity to debate and approve those reports.

The measures do not amount to an outright block on suspending parliament but could make it much more difficult to bypass MPs. It is still subject to final approval by the House of Lords, but it is not expected to be blocked.

Those hoping to stop a no-deal Brexit believe that if parliament is sitting in the run-up to October 31 they will have the chance to prevent Britain leaving without a deal, the current legal default position.

“We are responsible for ensuring, or trying to ensure, good governance ... we’re supposed to be the protectors of the nation,” Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, one of those behind the proposal, said during the debate ahead of the vote.

A junior culture minister resigned after being among 17 Conservatives who rebelled against the government to vote for the measure. Media reported that finance minister Philip Hammond and other senior government figures, who are likely to be sacked if Johnson wins the top job, abstained.

“The prime minister is obviously disappointed that a number of ministers failed to vote in this afternoon’s division. No doubt her successor will take this into account when forming their government,” a spokesperson for May’s office said.

The three-year-old Brexit crisis is deepening as Johnson’s plan to leave the EU “do or die” on October 31 sets Britain on a collision course with the bloc’s 27 other leaders and many MPs in the British parliament.

Earlier on Thursday the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the budget watchdog, warned that Britain might be entering a full-blown recession — which a no-deal exit from the EU would compound, blowing a £30bn hole in the public finances. The OBR said the economy probably flat-lined or might have contracted in the second quarter.

Britain’s economy slowed by less than feared after the 2016 Brexit referendum. But many investors are worried about a sharp downturn now with the latest Brexit deadline approaching on October 31 and the world economy slowing because of trade tensions.

A no-deal Brexit could cause the economy to contract 2% by the end of 2020, the OBR said, referring to IMF forecasts.