The Commons arithmetic could prove insurmountableby Peter Kellner / November 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
Will the House of Commons vote for Theresa May’s Brexit deal? Let’s go figure.
There are 650 MPs. Sinn Fein’s seven members have not taken their seats; and four, including the Speaker, are elected House of Commons officials who never vote. That leaves 639 voting MPs: 316 Conservatives, together with ten Democratic Unionists make a pro-government total of 326, compared with 313 opposition MPs.
At the moment, the figures on Brexit look bad for the government. They risk losing the support of the DUP, and some Conservative MPs with strong views on both sides: Brexiteers who think the prime minister has agreed terms that turn the UK into a “vassal state”—and also Remainers, such as their newest recruit, Jo Johnson, who think that the deal would leave the UK far worse off than if we remained in the European Union. Against this, some Labour MPs might defy their party whip and support the deal.
Let’s put some numbers to this.
If every MP takes part in the vote, and including tellers (two on each side whose votes are not included in the numbers announced after each vote), the winning post is 320.
The Conservatives start with 316. At the time of writing, the DUP will not provide the extra votes they need. Worse, Theresa May could lose 30 or more members of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group and, possibly, ten Remainers such as former ministers Jo Johnson, Justine Greening and Dominic Grieve. That could reduce the pro-deal total to 276.
Some Labour MPs will lift that number higher: but how many? Kate Hoey, one of the most outspoken Labour supporters of Brexit now says she might oppose the government, on much the same grounds as the DUP. (Hoey herself has Ulster protestant roots.) At present, the number of pro-deal Labour MPs is likely to be nearer five than ten.
All in all, the current arithmetic points to a heavy government defeat, with no more than 285 MPs supporting the Brexit deal and at least 354 opposing it. In practice, there will be a handful of abstentions and absences; but a majority of 70-plus is plainly on the cards.
Could the government turn this round?
Winning round the DUP would be a start. The party has always been led by tough-talking deal-makers. They will demand a heavy price, including literally: more money for the province. If they are satisfied, maybe Hoey will come round, too. With 11 MPs switching back, the anti-government majority falls by 22, to around 50.
The government needs at least 25 more MPs to switch from fighting the deal to backing it (that’s because every MP who switches reduces that anti-deal majority of around 50 by two.) A significant number would have to come from the Rees-Mogg/Boris Johnson wing of the Tory party. Government whips hope to reduce the total of ERG rebels from 30 down to 20 at most; which would give them 10 switchers and knock 20 off the anti-government majority. That would help, but it would not be enough. 20 ERG rebels would still mean a majority of around 30 against the deal.
If the ERG rebellion is reduced to ten, then the figures get much closer: the anti-government majority would be down to ten. It would then need either a collapse of the Tory-Remain rebellion, or a modest increase in support from Labour MPs for May to squeak home.
The key to all this is the stance of the DUP. If it sticks to its decision to vote down the deal, then the prospects for the government look bleak. May could win only if either (a) the ERG and Remain rebellions collapse completely and virtually every Conservative MP backs the deal; or (b) some Labour MPs break the party whip on Brexit for the first time and support the government. Only gamblers with a reckless streak who can obtain good odds should bet on either, let alone both, things happening.
On the other hand, if the DUP does in the end back the deal, then this will change both the arithmetic and the dynamic at Westminster. The extra ten votes would make some difference though, as we have seen, on their own not enough. The larger point is that with parliament’s greatest guardians of the UK onside, Tory whips will have a better chance of whittling down the ERG rebellion. Then we are in the territory of a close vote which could go either way.
There is one other factor that might come into play. The prime minister hopes British business will speak out in favour of the deal. Their support could make a big difference—both nationally and, perhaps more importantly, locally. Imagine you are a pro-European Labour MP representing a strongly leave-voting constituency. The biggest employer in your area rings you up and says she can live with the deal: your constituents’ jobs will be safe. How will you vote? Many will be reluctant to, in effect, bale out a troubled Tory government; but some may be tempted to vote to (as they would see it) protect their voters’ livelihoods.
The government’s task, then, is clear, if difficult. Its opponents in all parties will want to hold onto their lead. Their challenge is to persuade enough MPs that they need not fear the crisis that a government defeat would provoke. An alternative road to a brighter future needs to be mapped out. For this reason, calls for a new People’s Vote referendum, are likely to grow a lot louder.
Whatever happens, the Brexit saga is about to become a lot more dramatic.