Loose change. The MPs who Theresa May needs to get on board

Loose change. The MPs who Theresa May needs to get on board

In a sense, it’s all very simple. Theresa May has negotiated her deal, now all she needs to do is persuade the House of Commons to back it. A huge majority of MPs reject the idea of leaving without a deal. The 2016 referendum mandated MPs to ensure that Britain leaves the EU. Nothing in practice can be negotiated before 29 March 2019. So it should be plain-sailing, shouldn’t it?

Theresa May’s deal has everything going for it except for one thing: backers. It was unceremoniously pulled in December when it was apparent that it was going to suffer a landslide defeat. The last month has been spent seeking to give it the kiss of life. Quite a few commentators think it is going to pass eventually but that begs the question where the votes for it are going to come from. So where are they going to come from?

Here are Theresa May’s groupings.

Confirmed supporters

The deal was not entirely friendless first time around. Theresa May could count on the support of all those frontbenchers who decided that they could reconcile it with their consciences. That gets her to 108 straight away. Another 70 Conservative MPs have publicly stated that they would vote for the deal. Stephen Lloyd left the Lib Dems to carry out his general election promise to support the deal. So that’s 179. She can reasonably expect this group to stay in line.

Unconfirmed Conservatives

Theresa May will also be hopeful that those who have been quiet so far will fall into line. There are 32 Conservative MPs who have kept their powder dry. This, however, is by no means a done deal. This group includes some who have made some pretty negative noises about it, including Sir Graham Brady.

But let’s assume that these are ultimately going to be supportive – it’s hard to see how she gets the deal over the line without the support of substantially all of these. That gets her to 211 MPs.

Unconfirmed others

There are a few MPs outside the Conservative party who are not taking a whip and who have not made their position clear. Of these, the Prime Minister will expect to scoop up Lady Sylvia Hermon and Frank Field. Kelvin Hopkins might be winnable and John Woodcock is in a category of one. Let’s credit all of these to the Prime Minister: she’s going to need them. That makes 215.

From here, the going gets harder.

Conservative unreconciled Remainers

These attract a lot of hostility from others in their party, but in truth they are a side issue. Just eight Conservative MPs have said that they would oppose the deal and seek a people’s vote.

Conservative hardline Leavers

That’s a large part of Theresa May’s problem right there. There are nearly 100 Conservative MPs who are publicly opposed to the deal as not being Brexity enough. They have done so in strident terms. Some, including Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab, have described it as being worse than remaining in the EU. This makes it very difficult for them to backtrack on their opposition because what rationale could they give?

Quite a few of these MPs are entirely comfortable with the idea of no-deal Brexit and have said so. They will need to be given a compelling reason for backtracking on their opposition. Right now they believe that they can secure no-deal Brexit simply by opposing. Theresa May is going to have to change their minds.

As Sam Coates of the Times has noted, it’s very hard to see the number opposed ever dropping below 35, being the number who had publicly declared they had no confidence in Theresa May plus those who had resigned to oppose the deal. Personally, I’d double that number based on the public statements made. A lot of unwise words would have to be eaten. If the deal is still not going to pass, what’s the point of humiliating yourself?

Even if Theresa May manages to shepherd all of the Conservative MPs behind her, which right now looks like a complete fantasy, she still needs to get support, or at the least abstentions, from elsewhere. What are her options?


These 10 MPs make even less promising targets than Conservative Leavers. While they would prefer to leave the EU, the deal drives a wedge between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that they find more unacceptable. Not only is no deal better than this deal for them, remaining in the EU would be better too.

Labour loyalists

The official opposition is officially opposed to the deal. Labour have a five stage policy of opposition on Brexit, not one of which involves giving Theresa May’s deal any succour at all. Could Labour nevertheless be persuaded to support the deal, or at least to abstain, rather than see Britain leave without a deal? Jeremy Corbyn would seem to lack any motivation for such a course of action for as long as he could blame the resulting mess on the Conservatives. Theresa May will hope that some of his supporters break ranks.

Labour pro-Europeans and Lib Dems

Both of these groups are opposed to the deal on the basis that a referendum would be preferable to exiting on this deal. However, they might well prefer that Britain leaves in an orderly way to seeing it leave chaotically.

There are just 11 Lib Dem MPs, now that Stephen Lloyd has resigned the whip. It is unclear how many Labour MPs there are who would prioritise an orderly Brexit over following the party line.

While Labour members are opposed to no-deal, they are also opposed to the deal itself – they want a fresh referendum so that Britain can remain in the EU. So while I can imagine quite a lot of Labour MPs defying their leadership in the right circumstances to secure a fresh referendum, few are likely to feel impelled to support Theresa May’s deal or even abstain. Her challenge is to work out if and if so how this number can be maximised.

Labour Leavers

There aren’t actually that many of these, maybe eight or so now. They have no reason not to follow Jeremy Corbyn’s line.


The SNP are opposed to Brexit and want a fresh referendum. They are also opposed to no-deal Brexit. The SNP, however, are almost pathologically opposed to the idea of ever being labelled tartan Tories, so it is hard to imagine them ever backing the deal. In all likelihood, the best that Theresa May can hope for is a mass abstention. Even that looks fairly unlikely.

I would expect Plaid Cymru and the Greens to take the same line as the SNP ultimately. So this is a bloc of 40 MPs.


It all looks grim for Theresa May’s deal. She essentially has three possible ways of getting it through – uniting a Leave bloc behind it, uniting a Remain bloc behind it or getting enough dissident Leavers on board and the acquiescence of enough Remainers to scramble home. Right now she is losing heavily among both Leavers and Remainers. Leaver MPs in particular have backed themselves into a corner and a lot of them are going to need more than a cosmetic change to the deal to be able to change their minds with dignity.  

So Theresa May’s best, though poor, chance of salvaging her deal looks to be by getting the acquiescence of substantial numbers of Remainers outsider her party. However, all her efforts seem to be being put into what looks like the futile task of placating Leavers. She clearly needs to produce a rabbit from a hat. But right now she seems to be looking in the wrong hat.

Alastair Meeks

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