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Supporters of Yvette Cooper plan to delay Brexit fear plan is unworkable

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LONDON — There are growing doubts that a plan seeking to delay Brexit, brought forward by backbench MPs, can actually work.

The Brexit amendment, brought forward by Labour MP Yvette Cooper, is designed to allow the passage of a new piece of legislation that would force prime minister Theresa May to seek an extension of the two-year Article 50 process.

House of Commons speaker John Bercow is likely to select the cross-party amendment for a vote by MPs on Tuesday. It looks like the plan will have enough votes to pass, with Labour and a handful of rebel Tory MPs ready to support it.

The prime minister has reportedly privately admitted that she will be forced to seek a delay to Brexit if the plan is successful.

However, senior Tory and Labour MPs, backing the amendment, have privately cast doubt on its workability.

They say that, because the complex plan would require the passage of separate legislation, the timeframe to squeeze it through both the House of Lords and Commons is very small.

One senior Conservative MP, who is backing the amendment, told Business Insider: “Yvette’s amendment is designed like a very small bullet fired at a very small target.”

“I hope it hits the target, but in order to do that on February 5, it has got to take a bill through all its stages in the House of Commons in a single day with all the procedural problems that may come from that.”

The legislation would then have to pass through all its stages in the House of Lords, the timeframe for which the Commons has no control over. Even if the Lords was willing to try and expedite the process, it would have to change its standing orders — the rules which regulate the proceedings of each house — for that to occur.

At the moment, standing orders only allow private member’s business such as Cooper’s bill on one day a month, which would need to be changed.

“There must be a risk that the complexity of what she is trying to achieve will lead to it floundering at some point on its route through parliament,” the MP said, adding that Lords could seek to block the passage of the bill by filibustering.

At a lunchtime event in Westminster this week, Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested summoning the Queen to suspend parliament in order to prevent the passage of the bill.

While such an extreme measure is unlikely, it serves to highlight the myriad ways in which opponents of the plan could frustrate its passage through parliament.

Some MPs have suggested they prefer a separate amendment tabled by Tory MP Caroline Spelman and Labour MP Jack Dromey, which states that the Commons “rejects the UK leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement and a framework for the future relationship.”

While it is not legally binding, some believe it could be politically weighty enough for the government to be compelled to act upon it.

One Labour MP, who is backing Cooper’s amendment, said he believed the complexity of the plan could lead to it falling. He added that he believed a separate amendment, brought by Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, would be more likely to be successful.

Under Grieve’s plan, MPs would be given time to pass one or more Commons resolutions which would direct the prime minister on what to do on Brexit. The resolutions would be technically non-binding on the prime minister. However, May would be subject to being found in contempt of parliament should she ignore them.

The plan, would also avoid the need to go through the tricky process of passing legislation.

“Dominic’s bill is simpler. We should keep it simple stupid,” the MP said.

Cooper’s gambit

Labour MP Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs select committee
Reuters / Suzanne Plunkett

There are other potential problems with Cooper’s bill.

If it is passed — and assuming it can get through parliament — an Article 50 extension would still require the agreement of the 27 other EU states.

MPs also voiced concerns that it would upturn Britain’s constitutional norms, which dictate that the government sets the agenda in the House of Commons, setting a dangerous precedent which would hamstring future governments.

“Parliament cannot become the executive,” one Brexit-backing Tory MP who opposes the amendment, told Business Insider.

“You would start to go down a very slippery road. The government knows this, I suspect, and that is why I don’t think it will succeed,” said another Brexit-backing Tory MP who opposes the amendment.

Does Theresa May privately support the Cooper amendment?

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement following winning a confidence vote, after Parliament rejected her Brexit deal, outside 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, January 16, 2019.
Reuters / Clodagh Kilcoyne

Yvette Cooper has claimed that she believes Theresa May would privately back an attempt to take no deal off the table. “She knows that she should rule out no deal in the national interest because it would be so damaging,” she said earlier this week.

But the prime minister, ever-occupied by attempts to manage the expectations of her bitterly divided Conservative party, will be wary of the fury and blame that Brexiteers would direct squarely towards her if she failed to prevent parliament taking a no-deal Brexit off the table.

“If no deal were taken off the table, Her Majesty’s government would have had to have connived in doing it,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg this week.

“It cannot be done if the government is determined to stop it,” he added.

Another Brexit-supporting Tory MP told Business Insider: “If the government became complicit in this Speaker-induced racket, this continual drive to upturn constitutional norms, then it would face very serious consequences.”

The prime minister cannot formally be replaced as Conservative Party leader until December due to a failed coup before Christmas.

However, the MP suggested that Tory MPs who support a no-deal Brexit could be tempted to vote with Labour in a no-confidence vote to try and oust her as leader if she allowed a delay to Brexit to happen.

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