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The numbers game. Alastair Meeks on the forthcoming Parliamentary votes on Brexit

September 8th, 2017

Picture credit: House of Commons twitter feed.

Pundits often refer to hardfought Parliamentary votes being a numbers game.  The phrase comes from the name given in the US to lotteries.  In a hung Parliament, that is more apposite than usual.

The current government does not enjoy the benefit of a Parliamentary majority and has some controversial measures to get through, particularly on Brexit.  So let’s take a look at some of the Parliamentary tribes that Mrs M will need to corral and contend with.  There are no membership cards as such, so MPs can and will flit between different groupings according to events and whim.

Conservative loyalists / quiet lifers

These will form the backbone of the government’s lobby fodder.  They are numerous, comprising the great bulk of the Parliamentary party.  They include not just the average Leaver MPs, but also those Conservative Remain MPs who now just want to get it over and done with.

Labour loyalists / quiet lifers

These will fall the opposition’s counterpart to the government’s lobby fodder.  They too are numerous.  There are those for whom Brexit is secondary.  And the thought of having the local Momentum branch singing Christmas carols and such like outside your constituency office ensures that quite a few Labour MPs will loyally follow whatever this week’s leadership position is.

Lib Dems

The Lib Dems are the one party fully united on what should come next on Brexit and who can be relied upon, more or less, to vote as a bloc.  But there are only 12 of them.

So far, so normal.  But these groups are some way from comprising an overall majority either way.  The Conservative loyalists probably outnumber the other two groups combined.  But there are other groupings who can alter the balance.

Labour leavers

Officially a select band (though they seem to have friends in high places in the party), the Labour leadership can rely on their support while it is taking a Brexit-friendly approach and they will share the leadership’s concerns about the manner of Brexit on immigration and workers’ rights. Jeremy Corbyn will be able to keep them in line whenever he is carrying out destructive opposition of the government’s Brexit plans but may struggle if he is leading the party in a positive pro-Remain direction on a given vote.

Article 50 refusniks

Besides, the Lib Dems and the SNP, 49 MPs voted against the triggering of Article 50: Ken Clarke, Caroline Lucas and 47 Labour MPs.  These MPs put their pro-EU sentiments ahead of party and can be expected to do so again.  Indeed, a heavily overlapping group of 50 Labour MPs did so again in the Queen’s Speech, voting for an amendment that said that Britain should stay in the Single Market.

These MPs can be expected to take a pro-Remain tack on critical votes, regardless of the party line.  Jeremy Corbyn will be able to keep them in line whenever he is carrying out destructive opposition of the government’s Brexit plans but may struggle if he is leading the party in a positive pro-Brexit direction on a given vote.

Parliamentarians

Leave campaigned under the slogan Take Back Control.  Ironically, since the referendum vote the Government has done its level best to bypass Parliament, fighting all the way to the Supreme Court in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny of the Article 50 decision and then forcing a bill through Parliament enabling it to do so unfettered.

Its preferred mode of Brexit is to do so by regulation, which is undoubtedly administratively convenient.  However, some Conservative MPs (not necessarily hostile to Brexit) see this as an undermining of Parliament’s role, and seek to keep Parliament in charge of law-making, not the Government.

The Government is going to need to offer sufficient reassurances to keep these MPs onside: this is a group that it can’t afford to lose.

Dealers

Some Conservatives are strongly in favour of a deal being reached, seeing it as essential to Britain’s prosperity.  They are going to oppose any sabre rattling and any suggestion that Britain might walk away without a deal.

No dealers

On the other side of Noel Edmonds’ jumper stand the opposite grouping.  Not every MP is keen to make the compromises that an agreement with the EU would entail.  Offstage Nigel Farage is already moaning about betrayal and some of his kindred spirits who stayed in the Conservative party are no doubt weighing up their options.  They will oppose any deal that looks too watered down or too EU-friendly in their eyes.  Some Conservative MPs have made their entire career from obsessing about the EU.  They aren’t going to stop just yet.

Irish Questioners

The Conservatives paid good money to get the DUP’s support for this government.  The DUP have a specific interest in Brexit (which in general they support), since it threatens to cut directly through the island of Ireland.  Since most DUP supporters are in the north and east of Northern Ireland and rarely cross the border, the DUP is probably a bit less concerned about the possibility of a hard border than might be expected.  Nevertheless, they will need not to be seen to be enabling one, so the Government will need to be able to present something that the DUP can present as a success for Northern Ireland if it needs to secure their votes.

Those with other priorities

Not everyone is all that bothered about Brexit.  Some parties, notably the SNP, see it as just another tool for pursuing an entirely different agenda.  Their votes will be cast accordingly.  Usually that will be against the government, to cause maximum disruption.

All of which implies that the Government is going to struggle seriously to get Brexit through in the way that it wants.  It’s much easier to corral votes negatively than for a positive proposition, so in a hung Parliament, Governments always struggle with controversial initiatives.  They don’t come much more controversial than Brexit.  Meanwhile, as Mike Smithson noted earlier in the week, the House of Lords probably won’t feel constrained by the Salisbury Convention so the House of Commons may get multiple bites at multiple cherries.  We’re in for a wild ride.

Alastair Meeks