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On the other Lords amendments the government is in trouble. Tory Europhiles in the Commons have been emboldened and the whips believe that up to 20 Tory MPs will rebel when they are asked to overturn them. The government, with the DUP’s support, has 326 votes and the opposition (without Sinn Fein who are abstentionist and hence irrelevant) has 313 votes.

A few Labour Eurosceptics should vote with the Conservatives — certainly Frank Field, Kate Hoey and Graham Stringer — and there may be a few more, such as Caroline Flint, who would abstain. But other Eurosceptic Labour MPs would not vote with the Tories if they have a chance of defeating them. Dennis Skinner, for example, a lifelong opponent of European integration, will swallow his scruples if there is any chance of defeating the traditional enemy. In an ordinary vote on these amendments, May simply does not have the numbers to overturn the Lords amendments.

The Tory whips believe that the only way they can win is to turn the votes into a confidence issue for the government. It is their belief that under those circumstances no Conservatives would rebel and that they could then still rely on the votes of up to three Labour MPs.

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act, passed by the Coalition government, complicates matters. It means that the only thing that would cause the government to fall, regardless of what the whips might say, is losing an explicit vote of confidence. That means Tory Europhiles could rebel on the Lords amendments and then troop through the government lobbies the next day when a confidence vote is called.

Kenneth Clarke has already made clear that this is his plan; the party could threaten to withdraw the whip from him and any others who follow his lead, but that would not necessarily stop them.

Some of the more hardline sceptics in the European Research Group of MPs are convinced that May is playing a cunning game with her party’s Europhiles and will use the lack of a parliamentary majority for a proper Brexit as an excuse to do what she would really wish to do anyway, namely deliver the softest of soft Brexits.

That is why talk of bringing down the government is growing among the Conservatives’ hardline Brexiteer MPs. They are doing their best to make clear that a compromise with the EU on a future customs partnership or on the Lords amendments threatens the survival of the government. The Eurosceptics have the 48 MPs necessary to trigger a vote of no-confidence — but they believe that May, if she had compromised on Europe, would then win such a ballot.
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