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17 Mar 2018

Politics and Society

Relationship with the EU

What odds a Brexit game-changer? The kind of dramatic political moment that could redefine the UK’s approach to the negotiations, or stall the process entirely?

Key to such a political moment would be the “Brexit mutineers” on the Conservative benches. These Tory MPs have more leverage than is often assumed. Theresa May’s position is much weaker than it looks at first sight.

For now, an uneasy truce has opened between the government and these Europhile backbenchers. Theresa May’s Mansion House speech appears to have given her more breathing space. But there is every reason to think this will be only a temporary state of affairs.

Government whips are aware of this, and their strategy is simple. It is to confront potential rebels with a stark choice: the prime minister’s version of Brexit, or Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister.

It is easy to see why this strategy seems like a good idea. We recently polled MPs on their attitude to Brexit. More specifically, we asked what political circumstances MPs felt would be most likely to bring about the kind of Brexit they want.

On the surface, the news was not good for the government. Fourteen per cent of Conservatives in the Commons felt something other than a Conservative majority made their preferred Brexit most likely.

So, there is dissatisfaction among Conservative ranks. Yet, no Conservative MPs surveyed felt a Corbyn-led Labour government would provide the kind of Brexit they want.

This, of course, would seem boringly obvious in normal times, but these are not normal times. Eight per cent of Labour MPs felt a hung parliament with the Conservatives in government, or a slim Conservative majority, was the best way to satisfy their Brexit ambitions.

So, while Theresa May might not be providing what some Conservatives want on Brexit, Corbyn isn’t providing what any of them want. Hence the attraction of attempting to convince Tory MPs that voting against the PM would effectively force her out.

Europhile MPs thus face a difficult choice: a hard Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn (and, if things work out really badly, conceivably both). It is in this light that Mrs May’s notion of “managed divergence” might start to look attractive.

In the old days, such scare tactics might have worked. Now, however, the situation is very different.

The problem is, the parliamentary rules make it harder for the whips to deploy fear of Corbyn effectively. A historical comparison might help clarify this. In March 1977, 20 months after a referendum on Europe, James Callaghan found himself at the head of an increasingly insecure government. Labour whips proved proficient at confronting potential rebels with a threat: back us or have the Tories in power.

That, however, was before the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Now, the PM cannot credibly threaten to be defeated. This is because a vote of no confidence can no longer be tied to specific legislation (“vote for our Brexit deal, or face Corbyn”). May can’t force her MPs into the binary choice between her Brexit and a potential Corbyn premiership.

Two different groups of MPs are needed to make an election happen. There would need to be 50 per cent (plus one) to vote against May’s deal. Then 66 per cent (plus one) — a two-thirds super majority, under the rules — would need to vote for there to be an immediate election.

Even if a no-confidence vote does happen, and passes, it does not trigger a general election. No parliamentary majority for May’s Brexit does not mean a parliamentary majority for a general election.

Instead, there is a two-week window for a new government to be formed. This could, in theory, lead to a fortnight of intense parliamentary haggling and a new (cross-party) Brexit policy.

It is not hard to see the political logic of this for a sizeable number of MPs on both sides. After all, as an example, a majority of MPs — by 56 to 42 per cent — feel that staying in the single market is compatible with respecting the referendum result. This cross-party approach is what the voters at least say they want.

Put simply, the new rules create the possibility for parliament to reject both Theresa May’s Brexit position and a general election. The Brexit mutineers might just be able to have their cake and eat it, too.

By Alan Wager, Research Associate at The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally featured on Times Red Box.


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