Westminster is filled with plotters but nobody has the numbersby Sunder Katwala / September 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
The first rule of politics is being able to count, said Lyndon B Johnson. Applying LBJ’s rule to Westminster reveals this to be the season of insufficient coalitions. What explains the curious cocktail of political volatility and stalemate is that many plots are afoot, but nobody’s numbers quite add up.
This is true when you look at internal Conservative scheming, but also when you look at the way forward on Brexit.
Consider the first. Conservative backbenchers speculate as to whether 48 of their number will write to Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922, obliging him to call a confidence vote in the prime minister. Speculators guess that he may have 36 in his desk already. The European Research Group (ERG) frequently briefs that it could find the numbers.
But a no confidence vote is no use without enough support to bring down the PM. The number that matters is not 48 but 158—or more than half of Conservative MPs voting in the ballot. Defeating a no confidence vote defuses the threat, giving the party leader 12 months’ immunity from another contest.
The PM could well survive such a vote, despite not having the confidence of most of her MPs, if they were asked whether she should fight the next election. Ironically, Theresa May survived after losing her majority in the snap election because pro-Brexit backbenchers rallied around when a coup bid was declared on the party’s moderate wing. The roles are now reversed, so that those who plotted against her last summer would save her this Christmas, if it was the ERG who moved against her.
So May can survive as party leader, as long as she accepts that she should go, voluntarily, probably next year.
An open leadership contest, probably in 2019, changes the maths again. The magic number drops to 106 because MPs choose the top two candidates, so having over one-third of MPs in the last three guarantees a place on the ballot. Boris Johnson is often considered a frontrunner, but that total looks a tall order for the former foreign secretary, who is more popular with party members than his fellow MPs.
The maths of the decisive Brexit moments in the commons looks equally deadlocked.
There is still a commons majority for Brexit: the number of Conservatives actively opposed in principle can be counted on one hand, and they are outnumbered by actively pro-Brexit Labour backbenchers such as Kate Hoey. But a majority for any particular form of Brexit is much trickier.
Theresa May cannot get her deal through on Conservative and DUP votes if eight backbenchers oppose it. Reconciling the demands of over 60 pro-Brexit backbench MPs unhappy with Chequers, and over 30 who oppose further concessions to the right, is a treacherous tightrope.
The Labour Party has set out tests that allow it to oppose a deal: it can defeat the government with Conservative backbench allies. But these allies would melt away the next day, as the opposition tried to convert the defeat into the no confidence vote that could bring about a general election. And the clock would still be ticking, with a no deal Brexit as the default option.
“There could be an unholy alliance, where Corbyn and Rees-Mogg vote together”
It is this scenario that those still hoping to stop Brexit believe could open a path to a second referendum. The “people’s vote” campaign has had a good summer, picking up media coverage and political momentum. But it is almost certainly too little, too late. There is no time to legislate for and hold a referendum before Brexit Day without extending Article 50.
The foundational hurdle is that, even having 100 MPs in favour of a referendum would leave it over 200 short of the required 326—unless it could convert Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour frontbench, unite the opposition tribes and find perhaps 30 Conservatives too.
In a no deal crisis, it is more likely that the latent commons majority for a closer EU deal than Chequers would pursue a different course. This “soften coalition” is personified by Dominic Grieve and Keir Starmer. It has come together to win a vote only once—on the process issue of getting the impact assessments published. This cross-party majority would seek a parliamentary mechanism to insist on an alternative course of action from the government. It is more likely to be a bid to secure a standstill transition deal than a new referendum. Article 50 extension is also possible but this would not guarantee a second vote by any means.
There is a broad cross-party majority—the “Grand Central Coalition” across the House—for taking a transition deal and then continuing to argue about the form that Brexit takes after 2021. There are probably 450 MPs in this camp—but no guarantee of any majority when the House divides along party lines on any government proposal.
The most unpredictable scenario of all is the government losing the vote on the deal, not to a “soften” majority with an alternative plan, but to an “unholy alliance”—where Corbyn, his backbenchers, the SNP, Jacob Rees-Mogg and a large backbench group vote down the government together. Rees-Mogg’s ERG would hope to deliver a no deal or harder Brexit, without bringing down the government. The Labour Party would hope to defeat the government, without causing a no deal Brexit. So the “unholy alliance” will only vote together if one part of it has miscalculated the consequences.
Sometimes, counting the votes can only get you so far in predicting the political future—if nobody yet has the support they need to prevail.