MPs have easily passed a backbench amendment seeking to block any attempt by a future government to prorogue parliament to ensure a no-deal Brexit, in what is likely to be seen as a pre-emptive strike against Boris Johnson’s authority.
The amendment, tabled by a cross-party group led by Labour’s Hilary Benn and the Conservatives’ Alistair Burt, passed by an unexpectedly large margin of 41 votes, with 315 MPs backing it and 274 opposed.
One of those to support the measure was the culture, media and sport minister Margot James, who resigned from her post to do so.
Among a series of other ministers who did not vote and who are understood not to have had permission to miss it were the chancellor, Philip Hammond; the justice secretary, David Gauke; the business secretary, Greg Clark; and Rory Stewart, the international development secretary.
It is understood they were not paired with an opposition absentee and so were expected by Theresa May to obey the three-line whip.
In a pointed statement afterwards, a spokesman for May said: “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.”
Johnson, the clear favourite to be declared winner of the Conservative leadership contest against Jeremy Hunt next week and thus replace May as prime minister, has repeatedly refused to rule out using prorogation to ensure a no-deal Brexit on 31 October.
Prorogation is the official term that marks the end of a parliamentary session. After being advised to do so by the prime minister, the Queen formally prorogues Parliament. This takes the form of an announcement in the House of Lords on the Queen's behalf. It is a speech, written by the government, which usually describes the bills which have been passed during that session, and summarises what has been achieved.
It means that all work on existing legislation stops, and MPs and Lords stop sitting. Prorogation also automatically kills any bills, early day motions or questions to ministers going through parliament.
Parliament can then be reopened a few days later with a fresh slate of legislation intentions, set out in a new Queen's Speech at the formal State Opening of Parliament.
The scale of the victory highlights the struggle he will have to impose his will on Brexit or other subjects over a Commons without a Tory majority and where Conservative internal discipline has broken down.
James said after the vote the majority was emphatic because of the concerns of so many ministers and ex-ministers who rebelled or abstained. She hinted more resignations could come after Johnson was confirmed as leader.
“I think we have to wait and see what happens next. Jeremy Hunt would behave in an appropriate way, he does not believe in proroguing parliament, which is just too extreme, so I don’t expect people to resign until they know for sure what the outcome is next week,” she said.
“It is difficult for anyone to resign, yes, and very difficult for me. I love my job and I felt I still had lot more to do. Unless you are completely sure, it is very hard. And I’ve been through the lobby to support the PM’s deal three times. It’s not been easy for me. My constituents voted emphatically to leave and I will honour that. But when it comes to protecting the right of parliament, that is really important.”
Keith Simpson, a Tory veteran, said he planned to toast his first ever rebellion with a glass of wine. “This is the first time I have rebelled against my party in 22 years in parliament,” he said. “This is a huge national issue. I said months ago to my local paper and my association that I was totally against no deal. So this is the first time I have rebelled but you can get a taste for it.”
The Benn-Burt plan beefs up earlier amendments made to an otherwise technical Northern Ireland bill. It is designed to thwart prorogation, though experts remain split over whether MPs can definitively block this.
When the bill was first considered by the Commons, MPs passed by a single vote an earlier amendment by Dominic Grieve intended to make it more difficult for a future government to prorogue parliament.
Grieve’s first amendment required a minister to report to the Commons every two weeks until December on the progress of talks on restoring the Northern Ireland assembly – though it remained unclear whether this could be done as a written report, meaning the chamber would not necessarily have to sit.
This was later changed via another amendment in the Lords, tabled by David Anderson, a former independent reviewer of terror legislation, with support from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. This said the fortnightly reports demanded by Grieve’s amendments would have to be debated within five calendar days of being produced, thus necessitating that the Commons sits.
When the bill returned to the Commons Grieve then added another tweak via a last-minute amendment, intending to increase the power to block prorogation even more. It specified that if ministers could not meet the obligation to update the Commons because it was prorogued or adjourned, parliament would have to meet on the day necessary to comply with the obligation and for the following five weekdays.
The bill to which all these were attached was initially a simple one intended to delay elections and budgets for the long-suspended Northern Ireland assembly and executive. When it was first in the Commons last week, MPs overwhelmingly passed amendments extending the rights of same-sex marriage and abortion to Northern Ireland, the only places in the UK where they are not allowed.