May’s numbers don’t add up for now. Is the threat of No Deal enough to change minds?
You have to salute her indefatigability. Despite the Prime Minister being just about the only MP prepared to champion the government’s Brexit Deal, despite the loss of another two cabinet ministers, plus various other more junior ones, despite the letters of No Confidence openly going in to the Chairman of the 1922, despite the three hours of parliamentary pummelling she took – mostly from her own side – when reporting the Deal the House, Theresa May soldiers on.
That she does so is down to the fact that while no-one likes what she’s putting forward, she at least does have a plan that doesn’t involve flying unicorns. Rees-Mogg made a serious tactical error when he openly announced his letter being sent, and then failed to trigger the No Confidence motion. His credibility as the voice of the Eurosceptic right – and the threat they pose to the PM – have to be diminished now it’s highly likely that his colleagues have failed to follow his action.
(It is just possible that the 48 letters have gone in and the Graham Brady is waiting for an opportune moment to make the announcement. There’s no obligation for him to announce that the threshold has been met the moment the 48th letter goes in, though the spirit of the rules suggest he should. Some commentators have suggested that he would give May advance notice of the No Confidence vote, were one triggered, and reports this week that he’s already met with her and with the Chief Whip don’t entirely go against him doing so now. However, were she to know that such a vote was imminent, I don’t think the PM would be flat-batting the bowling).
However, while the PM might survive for now, her Deal will not; not in its current shape anyway. Labour is going to vote against, as will the smaller parties, including – thanks to the two-tier backstop – the DUP. That alone would leave the PM in perilous danger, relying on Labour rebels, of whom there are just a handful. Those votes will be far outweighed though by the Tory rebels opposed to the deal, of which there could easily be fifty or more.
The net result is that the government is likely to lose the vote by a hundred or more.
One tactical problem the whips have is that the numbers are so heavily against them that it will be very hard to play to the sense of MPs’ loyalty. If the votes of a few could mean the difference between success and failure then there would be immense pressure on the waverers but that isn’t the case. Those opposed can vote it down with safety in numbers, knowing that theirs wasn’t the crucial vote.
So far, so bad. There are, of course, a small number of MPs and members of the public who actually want for Britain to leave the EU under a No Deal outcome. Some of these genuinely have a fair idea of just how hard the hit to the economy and essential services could be; most almost certainly don’t. The rest of the MPs voting against the Deal, and the members of the public backing that position, are doing so because they think that out of the political chaos that would result, some means to a different outcome would be found – perhaps with the side-dish of a general election, a change of government, a change of PM or whatever else the person in question is apt to desire.
How realistic is that? Perhaps the best way to think about it is to look at each of the options in turn.
A change of PM
In some ways, it’s surprising this hasn’t already happened. As Rees Mogg finally noticed, the policy is a function of the person. As long as May remains in place a deal something like Chequers will be on the table – hence, if you want to replace the policy, you have to replace the person. There are at least four big downsides to that logic though. Firstly, it only really counts if you are really not keen on both the deal and No Deal, both of which are currently on the table and therefore don’t require a change of PM; secondly, even if you can get someone else who will aim for a different policy, it has to be deliverable and it’s pretty clear that the EU is unlikely to budge much; thirdly, elections are inherently unpredictable and there’s no guarantee that you will get the sort of leader you want; and fourthly, the public is unlikely to look kindly on a Tory Party which decides that the best use of half the time left before 29 March 2019 is to engage in an outright civil war.
As on so many occasions so far, May is likely to survive for now because the alternatives are worse.
A change of Deal
The downside to Chequers Plus is that no-one likes it; the upside is that it probably remains less intolerable to more players than any other likely possibility. If it’s voted down, can the government (led by whoever), go back and get something different? Two huge hurdles make that very hard: time and negotiating space. The EU are understandably keen not to give any hint that there are more concessions on the table and that the Deal took them as far as they could go, and that’s probably true. It’s highly unlikely that there could be any looser transitional deal available, so the Brexiteers, it’s this or nothing. For Labour though, or others who want a closer relationship, that might be possible. The EU won’t want to reopen talks but nor will they want Britain to crash out. Of the two, they traditionally prefer putting a crisis off, where possible. In reality, that would need a Labour government though. What I wouldn’t like to guess on is whether there might be a deal where the UK trades a closer relationship for now – putting Britain on the same level of alignment as N Ireland, for example – for either a definite expiry date or a unilateral withdrawal clause. Something like that might satisfy the Tory and DUP MPs.
A genuinely different deal is probably undeliverable while the parliamentary maths remain as they are, though some amendments might be possible.
A change of government
This is Labour’s stated – and probably actual – goal. The problem with it is that it requires either the government to deliberately commit hari kari (as opposed to doing so accidentally), or for Tory MPs to defect, or for the DUP to vote against the government on a confidence vote.
The first two outcomes are highly unlikely. The government is not going to want to call an election when it is so split and when its core policy is so lacking in popularity. To choose to do that would be to invite an even worse election campaign than last time. Nor are defections likely. Rebellions, yes; defections, no. There is still more than enough – not least Corbyn – binding the Tories together.
By contrast, the risk of the DUP voting the Tories out is not inconceivable, though it too is unlikely. In reality, it’s only probable if May’s deal – with the two-tier backstop – goes through. Otherwise, an outcome that preserves N Ireland’s relationship with the EU on the same basis as Britain will satisfy the DUP, even if that’s No Deal. The reality is that the parliamentary maths give the DUP enormous leverage and it’s far more beneficial for them to retain the balance of power than to hand Downing Street to Corbyn – but that doesn’t mean voting against the Tories on key policies.
The Deal v1.0.1
Could May simply bring back the same deal a second time, with only tiny tweaks? Possibly, yes. As time ticks on, renewed negotiations go nowhere and the pressure of time becomes ever more acute, Labour might start to wobble, as might some Tory MPs who’ve currently wavered to opposing it. Come January, or even February, will Labour continue to try to force an election even if all previous efforts have failed, there’s no obvious mechanism and there’s no time left? Perhaps that would be the point where May and the Tory whips could put together 320 votes, banking on a lot of Labour ones. Doing so would seriously risk a split in the Tory Party though.
A second referendum
This is the most popular of a whole herd of unicorns. A second referendum offers no attraction to the government, which would have to advocate the Deal, and which would have no enthusiasm or support in doing so. Leave aside that it could only be delivered now with an A50 extension, which is a questionable proposition – there is no-one to put the legislation forward. Parliament cannot simply force an Act on the government that the government doesn’t want, all the more so if its passage is only a matter of weeks. And even if it could, polling probably means that whatever won would have no stronger mandate than what we have now.
This is a period of extreme volatility and unusually, the rule that Things Usually Don’t Happen doesn’t apply. Something will happen, if only because Brexit is currently hard-wired into the timetable and simply amending that is Something Significant Happening.
However, I don’t think things will simply tick on like that. It is entirely possible that May could be deposed before March next year, in which case the Tories choose a Hard Brexiteer and the UK leaves without a deal – though that will hardly be the end of the affair.
More likely is that May struggles on, loses the vote, goes back to Brussels and tries to get change. Brussels, needing a deal to be signed off in order to protect the Irish, might offer quid pro quo amendments, which could be enough for the Commons to vote it through at a second time of asking. That’s now the best-case scenario.