Jim Pickard’s scoop in the FT that Labour plan to vote against any Brexit deal got us thinking about what likely scenario will play out as and when a deal with the EU is agreed.
That is of course assuming a deal can be made. It is reported that the deal is about 85% complete, but the sticking point of the Northern Irish border remains. Both sides have been equally vociferous about their positions, with the UK determined that its constitutional and economic integrity cannot be split down the Irish Sea (despite some things like energy regulation already all-Ireland), and the EU exclaiming that its four freedoms cannot be split (despite deals with Switzerland, Norway, Ukraine and others to the contrary).
But looking beyond the headlines at the detail, it’s clear that officials on both sides have found workarounds for many technical issues, and are probably doing the same for this one, irrespective of the impending doom many salivating journalists would have us believe.
So back to the assumption that a deal can be reached and this comes back to Parliament in November for approval. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry has suggested that the opposition will vote against the deal. That is because she judges that achieving a workable deal is impossible. Labour’s criteria – that the UK enjoy the exact same benefits of EU membership but the referendum result must also be respected – are indeed impossible, and so it is on that basis she has decided a deal will never be good enough. Given how complicated the subject is, it’s not clear the public will see Labour’s attempt to face two ways for what it is.
It does however seem likely that the Labour leadership will take this position, because it is always difficult for any opposition to resist the opportunity to go for a government jugular. The calculation is that by defeating the Prime Minister, an election is called that Labour have a good chance of winning, or at least dent the Tories sufficiently to form an anti-Tory coalition. This may be the closest the current crop of Labour top dogs get to power, so why not take a chance?
Despite this, all is not lost for the Government, and it all comes down to a game of parliamentary arithmetic. The Prime Minister needs to ensure that no more than 10 of her own MPs vote against her, and to ensure that the DUP vote with her, in order to see any legislation passed. It is because of this that she mustn’t concede too much on the Northern Ireland issue. We also know that perhaps 2 or 3 Labour MPs may vote with her to ensure Brexit continues. While 25 Tory MPs have said they will vote to defeat Chequers, that number may shrink in the face of an impending Government defeat, but not disappear altogether. On the face of it, that would leave things on a knife-edge in the House of Commons.
However, the unknown quantity here is the non-Corbyn supporting Labour MPs. They may see sense in at least getting a deal sorted before Brexit, presuming we would otherwise leave without a deal, and who do not want to risk a Corbyn-led Labour Government. The Prime Minister will therefore be reliant on minimising rebels in her own party and encouraging non-Corbyn supporting Labour MPs to be sufficiently worried that Corbyn is on the brink of power.
Recent left-wing diatribe has been focused on the Labour MPs who helped Theresa May survive the Brexit related legislation in the spring. Frank Field and others have been duly censured by their local parties, and may not stand again. Some Labour MPs will therefore be intimidated into supporting Corbyn in the hope of avoiding deselection, though that steamroller is likely coming for them whatever happens. But some may decide to support the Government nonetheless, recognising that if they can resist an election now, the Tories may survive until 2022, and Corbyn’s star may wane well before that. Perverse as it may seem, some Labour MPs do not want an election now with the wrong leader, in the hope that they can win an election later with the right leader.
The current Labour leadership, for their part, will know all of this and know that they will need to throw those non-Corbyn supporting Labour MPs a bone in order to minimise the number who may vote with the Prime Minister. While Thornberry denies it, the greatest bone they could be thrown may come in the form of an offer of a second referendum. This may entice away an unknown number of Labour MPs who might judge that it is better to have Corbyn as leader and keep Britain in the EU.
So it comes to pass that the most important remaining group of MPs in the whole of Parliament right now are the non-Corbyn supporting Labour MPs who have accepted the referendum result, led by the likes of Caroline Flint. Given that Labour seats are by and large in Leave areas, the number of these MPs who feel they had better accept the referendum result is absolutely crucial to the Government’s – and Brexit’s – survival over the coming months.
- 20 September – Salzburg summit – EU27 to meet to discuss Brexit strategy
- 18 October – EU Summit – official deadline for a Brexit deal
- 13/14 November – EU Council Plenary – expected summit to agree Brexit deal
- Late November – UK Brexit legislation to approve deal