MPs have returned to Westminster 19 days earlier than expected after the Supreme Court ruled that the suspension of Parliament was “unlawful”.
But could a no-deal Brexit still happen on 31 October?
Brexit extension law
Before Parliament was suspended MPs passed a new law – introduced by Labour’s Hilary Benn – designed to stop Boris Johnson pushing through a no-deal Brexit on 31 October.
Under the law, MPs Mr Johnson is required to request a three-month Brexit delay by 19 October.
But – as with everything in politics at the moment – it’s not as simple as that.
There are two scenarios in which Mr Johnson would not have to request an extension:
- MPs approve a Brexit deal in another meaningful vote (remember them?)
- MPs vote in favour of leaving the EU without a deal
In either of these scenarios, Mr Benn’s law would not force any Brexit extension to be requested.
Could the government ignore the law?
The law states that it is the prime minister himself who would have to request an extension directly to the president of the European Council.
It even includes the exact wording of the letter.
So, theoretically, Mr Johnson could refuse to write or sign that letter. But that would almost certainly lead to more court action.
There have been suggestions that Mr Johnson could follow the law by sending the letter – but send another letter setting out his political policy to leave on 31 October.
It is only a request
Even if Mr Johnson agrees to write the letter, it would still have to be accepted by all of the other EU governments.
It is possible that other European leaders are not convinced that they should grant the UK another delay – particularly if they think the extra time is not used for the right purpose.
If the EU agrees to an extension but to a date other than 31 January 2020, the UK would need to agree to this, unless MPs vote against the proposal.
In this unlikely scenario – MPs rejecting an alternative extension – the UK could be left on course towards a no-deal Brexit on 31 October.
What about an election?
Some MPs believe the only way to ensure a no-deal Brexit is avoided is to get a new prime minister.
Normally, the easiest way to do this is through a general election.
But Parliament rejected Mr Johnson’s offer of an early election on two occasions. The MPs that voted against the against were worried the PM would move the day of the election to after 31 October, forcing a no-deal Brexit in the process.
It is now too late to hold an election before the 31 October, because it takes at least 5 weeks to prepare one. But the government has indicated it may ask MPs for their approval again soon.
One suggestion from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox was to pass a one-line bill in order to set the day of an election in stone before 31 October. But this would require MPs to change the rules on how elections are called and organised.
An alternative government?
If the Labour Party does not want to agree to an election before a no-deal Brexit is off the table, there is still another option: a so-called “government of national unity”.
If Parliament was to back a vote of no confidence in the government, MPs would have 14 days to try and form a government that has the support of a Commons majority.
This could be a cross-party collection of MPs committed to blocking a no-deal Brexit. Theoretically, a new government could form for the sole purpose of requesting an extension to Brexit, before triggering an election.
The main obstacle here is party politics: Labour doesn’t want to support any government that does not have Jeremy Corbyn at its head. However, the Liberal Democrats’ leader, Jo Swinson, has said her party won’t support a government that has Mr Corbyn at its head.
Could no deal happen in the future?
Remember, the options open to MPs to force an extension aim to avoid a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, but they can’t rule out a no-deal Brexit in the future.
There are only two ways to do that: pass and implement a withdrawal deal or cancel Brexit altogether.