How many of them will vote for the government’s Brexit deal?by Alex Dean / November 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
The coming weeks will be some of the most consequential in British political history. There is no guarantee whatsoever that the government will strike a Brexit deal with the EU, but if it does then it must present the text to parliament. The arithmetic is impossibly tight, and if MPs vote it down then no-deal is a real possibility.
It is against this alarming backdrop that attention has turned to a particular group of Labour MPs, who could yet determine the fate of whatever the government brings back. It may be that No 10 needs them numerically. When I asked Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the Commons, whether they would be reliant upon Labour votes, she said: “the reality is we have a hung parliament.” That’s a yes, then.
The deal could need rescuing. But clearly Labour MPs are not in the habit of supporting the government. Could some of them really be persuaded to back the deal? Enough to help the government over the line? And what would be their motivation for propping up the Tories? I have spoken to several of them in recent days to gauge the mood, and the sense is that there are enough to see the government home. The decision could be the most important of these MPs’ careers, throwing not just Labour but all British politics into convulsions.
Of course, from the government’s perspective, it was not meant to be like this. The issue has arisen because No 10 cannot depend upon its own backbenchers: hard Leavers and Remainers in the Tory Party have long threatened rebellion (see Jo Johnson’s resignation) while the DUP’s assent is very far from guaranteed.
The Labour leadership, for its part, will whip MPs to vote down the deal in the hope that chaos will precipitate a general election. Add it all together and No 10 is facing defeat on the biggest issue of our time. Keir Starmer, the Labour Shadow Brexit Secretary, has said: “I don’t think it’s going to meet our tests, and we shouldn’t be voting for a deal that we don’t think is in the national interest.” A substantial majority of Labour MPs will vote accordingly.
But not all of them will. There is a handful of potential Labour rebels spread across two different camps. Their influence could prove decisive. But which MPs sit in which camp, and what is their thinking?
The first is Labour MPs who backed Leave in 2016. Various members of this group have supported the government on crunch Brexit votes in the past. But there are not many of them—less than ten. When I spoke to two of its members, Kate Hoey and Graham Stringer, they would not confirm an intention to vote with No 10, or to abstain.
Which is why the more important group is the second, the Labour “floating voters.” These politicians come from rather a different tradition, and could swing the outcome either way. The group is of MPs who backed Remain in 2016, but are now weighing whether to back the deal either from fear of a no-deal outcome, or in solidarity with their Leave-voting constituents. Crucially, there are estimated to be as many as 30 of them.
One such MP is Lisa Nandy, member for Wigan. Speaking on the phone, I asked whether she would ever vote with the government. “Every MP has to approach this with an open mind,” she replied. The difference with Starmer was striking. She continued: “I’ve got a duty to consider what the prime minister comes back with.” What would secure her vote? “The UK-wide customs union with the EU is a big part of the jigsaw,” she said. Reports suggest the government will concede this point over the coming days and if that happened, Nandy told me, it would “break down one considerable barrier to me choosing to reject that deal.” The government could win her support.
Nandy backed Remain, but Wigan voted 64 per cent Leave. She is not the only Labour MP in that position; Caroline Flint, who represents Don Valley, is weighing the same thing. “The question for my Labour colleagues is why wouldn’t you support a deal?” she told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge in October. MPs have a responsibility to consider any “reasonable” offer.
There are still more Labour MPs who could be convinced, be it for reasons of their constituents or the sheer terror of crashing out. Ruth Smeeth, Labour MP for Stoke North has said: “if the option is voting for the deal or voting for something that would mean no deal—well, I’m not prepared to vote for no deal.” Gareth Snell is another who could swing behind the government. Lucy Powell and Rachel Reeves are further possibilities.
This is the group around which the result of the vote could turn. Yet a decision to side with the government would be very controversial indeed, and is not something they will take lightly. Not least because their jobs will be put at risk.
Earlier in the year, various Labour MPs voted with No 10 on an amendment to the Withdrawal Bill. Outrage ensued, with commentators such as Owen Jones arguing that in preventing a defeat for the Tories, they had helped them cling to power. They were subsequently targeted for de-selection. The same argument would come back this time. Support the Brexit deal and the cries would come that those Labour MPs had, in effect, blocked the route to No 10. Few deterrents could be more powerful. Colin Talbot, an expert in government at Cambridge, told me he thought that “anyone breaking the whip might be subject to a reselection challenge.”
There are immovable forces on both sides. Labour MPs are in an impossible bind, caught between their consciences, their leadership and their constituents. What is going to happen?
There has been some talk of getting round the problem: of MPs amending the deal, without having to “take it or leave it.” But it is difficult to see how any truly meaningful amendments could be put down without undermining the Bill altogether, in practice leading to government defeat. Leadsom made this point when we met.
So what then? The best guess is that when the moment comes, with uncertainty hanging over the country, enough Labour MPs will vote with the government, or abstain, to squeak it over the line.
The fact is that no bloc of MPs can be considered in isolation. It’s important always to remember the other side of the coin: how many Tory rebels will vote down the deal? There is the suspicion that a vast majority are talking tough to pressure the government into concessions. When, in the final hour, they are staring down the barrel, they will blink and vote in favour. The alternative, which is total uncertainty and a possibility that Brexit is cancelled, or that we fall off the cliff, will be too much for most of them to stomach.
That means it will only take a handful of Labour rebels to carry the government through. And a handful seems likely—though not guaranteed. If the DUP bails out then the arithmetic could become insurmountable.
Leadsom wasn’t taking any chances. Speaking in her office she said: “all day long we in government, in a hung parliament, are seeking to persuade colleagues right across the hall.” MPs of all parties should “consider it their obligation to fulfil the referendum and that is my hope.”
Labour MPs are about to face the biggest moment of their parliamentary careers. If they step in, accusations of disloyalty will be deafening. On the other side of the House, Tory Brexit rebels will scream betrayal at the government forcing through “Brexit in name only”—and even worse, with Labour votes. British politics could turn very nasty indeed.
What is the alternative? If Labour MPs do not vote in favour, and the deal is rejected, then no one knows what will happen. We will be in uncharted territory.