Rebel MPs are working on a plan to thwart Boris Johnson pursuing a no-deal Brexit on 31 October that involves forcing parliament to sit through the autumn recess, amid growing outrage about the power and influence of his controversial aide, Dominic Cummings.
The cross-party group of MPs is looking at legislative options with mounting urgency because of the hardline tactics of Cummings, who one Conservative insider described as running a “reign of terror” in No 10 aimed at achieving Brexit on 31 October at any cost.
Three MPs have told the Guardian that one method under discussion is for members to amend the motion needed for parliament to break for party conferences in mid-September. This could give MPs another three weeks of sitting time to stop a no deal and potentially open the door for days to be set aside for rebels to control parliamentary business. The ultimate aim would be to pass a bill forcing the government to request an extension to article 50 from Brussels.
Since joining Johnson’s administration, Cummings has told government advisers that No 10 stands ready to do whatever is necessary to bring about Brexit on 31 October – deal or no deal. This could include proroguing parliament, or ignoring the result of any no-confidence vote in Johnson and calling a “people v politicians” general election – to be held after Britain had left the EU.
However, it is understood that alarm is mounting within No 10, among some special advisers and Tory MPs about the scale of Cummings’s influence and willingness to defy parliament.
One Conservative insider said that Cummings had effectively demanded total control over Johnson’s operation as his price for entering government and proceeded to sideline more moderate advisers, such as ex-City Hall stalwart Sir Eddie Lister, while installing a team of “true believers” in hard Brexit largely from the former Vote Leave campaign.
The source described Cummings’ grip over No 10 as a “reign of terror”, with advisers petrified about keeping their jobs and being told they are expected to be working flat out to deliver Brexit come what may by the 31 October deadline.
Lister was initially briefed to the media as Johnson’s newly appointed chief of staff and is described by some inside Downing Street as one of “the sensibles”. But an internal No 10 email shows that Cummings is now styled as “assistant to the prime minister” in charge of Brexit and domestic policy, while Lister has been downgraded to “chief strategic adviser” responsible for foreign affairs, business and security.
A Tory special adviser told the Guardian that Cummings was “absolutely running the show” and was even more ruthless and difficult to work with than Theresa May’s former advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill: “The level of terror is greater than Priti Patel would like to exert on the criminal classes. It is far, far scarier than under Nick Timothy. He is two Fionas plus a Nick rolled into one. It’s the worst of both worlds in one person.”
Cummings does have some supporters, including one special adviser who worked under the last two administrations, who said: “Dom wants people who can do the job well, will actually deliver on the PM’s priorities and will give honest answers when there are problems. In the last government you could get fired simply because someone else was having a bad day.”
But some Conservative MPs told the Guardian they were already very worried about the amount of power Cummings had accumulated so quickly as an unelected political appointment. One centrist Tory MP said: “Cummings is an unelected backroom adviser, and there’s a worry the PM is becoming just a front for his ideological plans.”
A No 10 source denied that Cummings had sidelined Lister, saying: “Eddie is the PM’s chief strategic adviser who has known the PM for 20 years, advising the PM on policy and strategy at all key meetings. Any suggestion that he is not in the room is total nonsense.”
The cross-party rebels are returning to ways to block no deal in law partly because Labour has made it clear it could not support a national unity government formed in the wake of a no-confidence vote.The party would prefer to push for a general election or minority Labour administration led by Jeremy Corbyn as opposed to supporting a compromise candidate such as Yvette Cooper or Ken Clarke.
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, told an audience in Edinburgh that if Johnson lost a confidence vote then Corbyn would seek to form a caretaker government instead, with the support of other opposition parties and rebel Conservative MPs.
If the Conservative leader failed to quit, McDonnell quipped that he would not “want to drag the Queen into this but [he] would be sending Jeremy Corbyn in a cab to Buckingham Palace to say ‘we’re taking over’”.
However, rebel Conservative MPs would be extremely wary about a plan that installed Corbyn as even a temporary prime minister and many prefer the option of legislation to block no deal rather than a vote to collapse the government.
Peter Kyle, a Labour MP who led a compromise plan to put any deal to a second referendum, said he was completely confident that any plans by Johnson and Cummings to push through no deal against the will of parliament could be stopped.
“Of course we can decide to sit through recess. Of course we can decide to amend precedent. If government acts unconventionally and flouts the sovereign power of parliament, parliament will rise to the challenge and if they break the rules, we will make new rules,” he said. He said MPs would not be cowed by Cummings who is a “maverick populist who spouts off to his blogger friends” about no deal.
But Chuka Umunna, the Liberal Democrat MP and Treasury spokesman, said the “vital cross party work” would only succeed if enough Labour and Tory MPs stand ready to stop a no deal.
“It will all come to nothing so long as there is the continuing alliance between at least 25 Labour MPs, including eight frontbenchers, and most Tory MPs who persist in voting against legally binding measures to stop a no-deal Brexit in the House of Commons,” he said.
Experts said it was a plausible plan for cross-party rebels to seize control of the order paper via motions for recess, which are called “periodic adjournment motions”. They are not normally amendable, but John Bercow, the Speaker of the Commons, caused major controversy in January when he defied this convention and allowed Tory MP Dominic Grieve to amend a similar motion, which set a three-day deadline for the then prime minister to come back to the Commons with new plans if her Brexit deal was voted down. Grieve declined to comment on the idea of amending the September recess motion.
But the former attorney general, has said it would be unconstitutional for Johnson to defy any vote of no confidence and remain in Downing Street until after the Brexit deadline of 31 October.
When approached by Sky News outside his home on Tuesday, Cummings gave a rare public comment suggesting that parliament would be unable to find a way of forcing the prime minister out in order to stop a no-deal Brexit.
“The most simple thing is the prime minister believes that politicians don’t get to choose which votes they respect, that’s the critical issue,” he said. “I don’t think I am arrogant. I don’t know very much about very much. Mr Grieve … we’ll see what he’s right about.”