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On the third day of Christmas, our MPs sent to me – a general election?

December 6th, 2018

How the Brexit vote, a VoNC and the FTPA could create Christmas chaos

Poldark is not a documentary. As with many a period drama, it captures in the mirror as much of a picture of the era in which the adaptation was made as that in which it’s set. That’s not just true of the characters and their actions but of the world around them. To take one example, the ease and comfort with which they appear to nip up the 280 miles or so to London from Cornwall (or back) is more in keeping with taking the GWR than being cramped into a stagecoach for perhaps five days across dusty, rutted and/or muddy roads.

What, you might ask, does that have to do with Brexit? To which the answer is that due to a curious conjunction of Christmas, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and the Withdrawal Agreement vote, British politics could be about to take a decidedly eighteenth century turn.

It looks all but certain that the government will lose the vote on the Deal next Tuesday. Every other party is opposed, and up to 100 Conservative MPs have expressed at best severe doubts and at worst outright hostility. If the government keeps the scale of its defeat to double figures, the whips will have done well.

All the same, to lose a vote of that significance by any margin – never mind well over a hundred, as is probable – raises questions not only about the future of the government’s Brexit policy but over the futures of the PM and the government itself.

The thirty minutes that follow the announcement of the result could be the most critical in British politics since, at least, Sir Geoffrey Howe’s speech in 1990 effectively brought down Margaret Thatcher; possibly since well before then. The actions (or inactions) of May, Corbyn, their MPs, and the DUP in those minutes could well decide between Britain staying in the EU or leaving it; between the PM keeping her office or losing it; and between the parliament going on or triggering an early election.

After the vote is lost, we can expect two things. Firstly, the PM will announce what her Plan B is. This might well be Plan A again – nothing has changed. If it is, it won’t be for long, because she wouldn’t be around for long. More sensible would be to say that she’s listened to the grievances and that she will go back to Brussels to seek amendments. This may be a forlorn hope but it winds the clock down, keeps some deal on the table and may just deliver something – the EU won’t want a No Deal either – though it probably can’t deliver enough to change a ratifying vote. But as far as tactics go, kicking the can minimises the risk of a new referendum while forcing MPs – in particular, Labour MPs – to choose between her deal and no deal.

But secondly, Corbyn will surely table a Vote of No Confidence in the government, which would presumably be debated the following day, December 12. He would have little to lose in so doing. Almost certainly, all Tory MPs will return to the fold but the question over what the DUP might do is less certain. My guess is that if the vote is lost, and May’s deal with it, they’d prefer to continue to enjoy the benefits of their position as kingmakers, having seen off for now the threat of the Irish Sea border.

However, that’s where May’s words will be critical. If she cannot reassure the DUP on that score, there is a non-zero chance that she won’t receive their votes and that her government could be No Confidenced – which is where the calendar gets a bit tricky.

Section 2(3)(b) of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act says

An early parliamentary general election is also to take place if—
(b)the period of 14 days after the day on which that [No Confidence] motion is passed ends without the House passing a motion in the form set out in subsection (5) [i.e. that the House has Confidence in HM government].

Note the wording of the first part of the sub-clause. There is no ‘apart from weekends, Bank Holidays and/or periods of recess’. The clock would start ticking at midnight on the evening of 12-13 December and run without stopping for 336 hours from there, which is to say that the alarm would go off at midnight at the end of Boxing Day.

No doubt it hasn’t escaped your attention that the sharp end of this period is not exactly ideal for high political drama. The House is due to rise for the Christmas recess on 20 December but unless a new government had already been formed by then, that surely would be impossible. Talks would have to continue and MPs would have to remain available to vote for or against the proposed administration. I imagine that the prospect of spending Christmas in Westminster won’t be an appealing one to many an MP who’s already away from their family for long enough. Palace of Westminster staff would need to remain on duty as well, which mightn’t be easy to manage either.

Which is where it all gets a bit Poldark. Assume MPs get Christmas Day off. They would have to make themselves available on Boxing Day when anything could break at the last minute but physically being present in Westminster might not be all that simple. Christmas week rail engineering works routinely obliterate large parts of the timetable and there are (as far as I can see) no intercity trains running on Boxing Day. Some flights are available (including from Belfast), and the road is an option, if an unappealing one for an MP from the remoter parts of Britain – and assuming that there’s no inopportune snowfall.

Rarely can the prospect of a White Christmas have been so dreaded in the Whips’ Offices.

David Herdson