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At the end of the tunnel

October 11th, 2019

One of the many quirks of Brexit is that things look brightest when we’re in a tunnel. The announcement on Friday that the government’s latest proposals had gone into private intensive discussions caused market sentiment to soar, as well as the hopes of many political observers.

What does it all mean?  Well, since everyone is being uncharacteristically tight-lipped, it’s impossible to tell really. That hasn’t stopped endless speculation.

We can, however, set out the parameters. The last time that Parliament considered a deal was the third Meaningful Vote. It was defeated by 58. If Boris Johnson is to get a deal that will pass Parliament, he will have to do better (and, indeed, not lose any existing supporters). To be precise, he needs a net 29 to change sides in his favour.

Here is the current state of play in Parliament:

Conservative 288

Labour 245

SNP 35

Independents 35

Lib Dems 19

DUP 10

Sinn Fein 7

Independent Group for Change 5

Plaid Cymru 4

Green 1

Speaker 1

Who does he have to persuade? 34 Conservatives voted against it. Five of those are no longer Conservatives and look no more amenable than they did before. A sixth Remainer, Jo Johnson, might give his brother a sympathy shag, but that looks doubtful too. The other 28 are all militant Leavers. It has been suggested that Boris Johnson could now rely on the power of preferment to get more of them onside, but in fact only three of the hardcore Leavers, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and James Duddridge, are ministers. 

So there are 25 more MPs who can afford to remain true to their principles without cost if they are so inclined. This idea that the hardcore rebels are magically more biddable is not resting on patronage.

Whether they are so inclined will depend in considerable part on the reaction of the DUP. Their 10 MPs opposed the last deal on every occasion. Sammy Wilson has already fired warning shots.

The Lib Dems can be expected to show testicular fortitude opposing whatever deal Boris Johnson might come up with. So can the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the bulk of the Labour party. Just five Labour MPs voted for the deal last time around and only one of the independents last time who voted against (John Woodcock) looks even potentially persuadable. 

19 Labour MPs, however, wrote to the European Commission beseeching them to look for a deal. Boris Johnson will hope to pick up their votes and perhaps some more Labour MPs as well (Lisa Nandy has estimated 40 Labour MPs are working towards a cross-party deal).  They may, however, insist on extracting a price.

The movement may not all be one way. At least one Conservative MP has repented of his support of the last meaningful vote and others may follow if they regard the revised deal as selling out Northern Ireland. Lady Sylvia Hermon – who is after all a unionist, albeit an unusual one – may find it difficult to support a deal if it treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK.

All of this means that the numbers look challenging, but not necessarily impossible.  Much will depend on the deal actually struck, the willingness of the Spartans to accept a figleaf if offered and the newfound desperation of some Labour MPs to accept a deal.

Oh, and all this assumes that a deal is found in the first place. Still, let’s keep that faint candle flickering for now.

Alastair Meeks