Does Parliamentary arithmetic add up to Brexit?

‘The fastest route for Mrs May to exit Downing Street is for her to make a compromise too far for mainstream Conservative Brexiteers’

Politics
The government will enjoy Commons majorities on the broad principle on leaving the EU — but the House of Lords will be tougher (Maurice CC BY 2.0)

When Theresa May announced last April that she would be seeking to call an early general election, her justification was that the Conservatives needed a larger majority to push through Brexit. Now the Conservatives have no parliamentary majority and rely on Northern Ireland’s DUP to keep them in office. Even these Unionist votes are not a boost to the government’s pro-Leave majority, as in the last Parliament the DUP’s contingent of MPs — then eight and now ten — could reliably be expected to vote for Brexit in any division. If May’s rationale had been correct in April, Brexit would now be in deep trouble — but it was not.

On the Second Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill last month the government secured a majority of 36, well above the effective majority of 13 the Conservative-DUP alliance enjoys. This is despite the fact that all the opposition parties whipped their MPs to vote against the bill. Seven passionately pro-Brexit Labour MPs — including Frank Field, Kate Hoey, John Mann, Dennis Skinner and Graham Stringer — voted with the Tories, with a further ten or so Labour MPs, including former senior minister Caroline Flint, defying the whip by choosing to abstain. Only one Conservative MP — Kenneth Clarke — rebelled by abstaining. It is clear that the government will enjoy comfortable Commons majorities on votes on the broad principle of leaving the EU.

There will of course be MPs, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who will vote against Brexit at every opportunity, in an attempt to defeat and bring down the government, despite having a long record of support for leaving the EU. There is also a rather larger number of Tories who will support Brexit despite privately believing it to be a disastrous policy. Such political dishonesty, however, does not change the parliamentary arithmetic.

The bill now goes to committee stage. In this case, all MPs will take part in eight days of proceedings where the bill can be amended. The amendments will fall into three main categories. The first of these will be attempts to retain significant elements of EU membership after leaving the Union, such as continued membership of the single market or  the customs union. The second category will be moves to create extra hurdles, such as  a second referendum or further legislation, before the UK’s exit is finally approved. The government can rely on comfortably defeating both arguments. They will be seen by Labour pro-Brexit MPs for what they are — attempts to utterly frustrate Brexit or make Britain’s departure from the EU one in name only — and will thus be opposed by the Labour MPs who supported the government on second reading, and indeed others. Labour MPs representing strongly pro-Leave constituencies will think long and hard before doing anything to block Brexit.

Furthermore, the process of Brexit is an intergovernmental one. MPs voting to remain in the single market after we have left the EU can no more make this happen than they can turn the moon into cheese by voting for it. It could only be achieved if it is agreed between the UK government and the 27 other EU members.

Even if the May government wished to come to such an agreement, the almost certain consequence of doing so would be to trigger an immediate leadership challenge by 47 MPs demanding a vote of no-confidence in her leadership. Prominent Tories, not least Boris Johnson, would be more than happy to present themselves as the champions of true Brexit. The fastest route for May to exit Downing Street is for her to make a compromise too far for mainstream Conservative Brexiteers. The general election result means that she has become very unpopular with many MPs, and her remaining support base is among the vocal Leavers. She cannot afford to antagonise them.

Those who believe that all Conservative MPs are terrified of doing anything which might see Corbyn end up in No 10 — most undoubtedly are and would swallow almost anything to prevent this — forget that it would require only eight or nine Tories to refuse to support the government to bring it down. There are undoubtedly more than eight or nine MPs for whom any betrayal of Brexit is a far more important issue than whether their party remains in office. The opposite of this is not the case: there are not eight or nine Tory MPs who would be willing to jeopardise the government’s survival in order to keep closer links with the EU, at least so long as Corbyn and the hard Left remain in charge of Labour.

There is, however, one set of amendments — those watering down the so-called Henry VIII powers — where the government is in very real trouble. A vast amount of UK legislation gives regulatory powers to EU institutions. The government is seeking to give itself the power to amend these laws without full recourse to Parliament, using the argument that this is the only way to have a fully-functioning UK regulatory structure in place by the time we leave the EU in 18 months. Getting full parliamentary approval for all the necessary legislative amendments, the argument goes, would be simply impossible in the remaining time. The former Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve — with the support of Europhile Tory MPs including Clarke, Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry, and habitual rebels such as Sarah Wollaston — has put down amendments to water down these powers dramatically.

This is where the government’s argument is at its weakest. If Brexit is all about restoring the sovereignty of Parliament it sits ill with transferring large numbers of powers to the executive. Some MPs who now claim to be Brexiteers, certainly Tom Tugendhat and John Penrose, are also among the rebels. It is much more unlikely that May can rely on Labour Leavers for support on this issue as these amendments might make Brexit more complex but they do not undermine the principle of taking back control. The government will almost certainly face defeat on these amendments unless it makes substantial changes to the legislation beforehand. It will desperately seek to avoid defeat on the floor of the House, so almost certainly it will compromise on this.

There is a sustainable majority in the House of Commons for the government’s Brexit programme. The legislation will then have to battle its way through the House of Lords — a rather tougher challenge.