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get Brexit done

The slogan for this year’s Conservative Party conference, under the leadership of the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is to ‘get Brexit done’.

Immediately following last week’s Supreme Court ruling against the government, ill-tempered exchanges in the House of Commons saw the Prime Minister repeatedly blaming parliamentarians for failing to deliver Brexit.

Johnson pledged that his government would not ‘betray the people who sent us here’, before adding ‘that is what the opposition want to do’.

Given this claim, and the risks that such comments further stoke such public anger against our democratic institutions, it seems important to consider exactly which MPs primarily bear responsibility for the failure to agree a Brexit plan.

First, a quick recap on the months before Johnson took office.

His predecessor, Theresa May, pursued a lengthy negotiation with the EU27 – resulting in a withdrawal agreement that was signed off on 25 November 2018.

Under the terms of Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, this deal was put to an initial vote in the House of Commons on 15 January 2019.

However, it was defeated by a whopping 432 to 202 votes.

By the second attempt, on 12 March, various MPs had been persuaded to support the deal; but it was nonetheless still heavily defeated, by 391 votes to 242.

A third and final attempt at getting the House of Commons to agree the deal then occurred on the originally-planned Brexit day, 29 March 2019.

Again the gap between supporters and opponents narrowed, but the government was defeated by 344 votes to 286 – a margin of 58.

Opposition parties, including Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP, consistently voted against the deal (with the exception of a small handful of Labour supporters).

It is these members at whom the Prime Minister primarily vents his anger.

But it is not normally the role of opposition parties to deliver the government its policy.

The British opposition emerged to ‘oppose the government, to criticize it, and to seek to replace it’, not to facilitate its survival.

Instead, the key players in delivering government policy are, to state the obvious, government backbenchers.

As this is a minority government, that has a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the Northern Ireland DUP, it is to Conservative and DUP votes that one would normally look to find government support.

It is well known that there have been significant divisions in the Conservative Party on Brexit, clearly illustrated by the size of the 15 January defeat – 118 Conservative MPs (more than one third of the total) voted against the government in this first vote on the deal.

On the second attempt, the number of rebels declined to 75, and on the third attempt to 34.

Each time, the DUP’s 10 MPs also all voted against.

It could hence reasonably be said that the deal failed to pass on all three occasions thanks to resistance on the government’s own side.

The implications from the Johnson team’s remarks, and from some key pro-Brexit organisations, are that the failure to ‘get Brexit done’ can be laid at the door of a ‘Remainer parliament’.

Potentially this could be true, if the Conservative MPs who repeatedly opposed the deal were predominantly Remain supporters.

But while some Conservative MPs sceptical about Brexit certainly did vote against the deal, this is far from the full story.

The left-hand side of the graphic below shows how members of Boris Johnson’s Cabinet voted on the deal in each of the three key votes.

Five Cabinet members, including Johnson himself, voted against it on the first two occasions; three relented to support the deal on the third occasion, whilst two maintained their opposition.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons – who attends Cabinet, but is not formally a member – also voted against the deal twice, then supported it on 29 March.

Among all the other members of the Cabinet, who supported the deal throughout, only Nicky Morgan was not bound by collective ministerial responsibility.

Any others would have needed to resign their government positions in order to vote against.

Putting it differently, six of the seven senior ministers who came into government as part of the Johnson administration voted against the deal.

The current Cabinet contains 22 MPs.

This aligns almost perfectly with the 21 Conservative MPs who had the whip removed for voting against the Johnson government on 3 September.

These members and their voting records on the deal are shown on the right-hand side of the figure.

Amongst them only four members voted consistently against the deal.

Hence support for the Brexit deal could be seen as higher among this group of 21 than it was amongst the current Cabinet.

In addition, fewer of them were bound by collective ministerial responsibility; on the first two votes, six of these MPs voted for Theresa May’s deal entirely voluntarily, and by the third vote this number had risen to nine – after three resigned as ministers to vote for Oliver Letwin’s ‘indicative votes’ proposal.

The closest and final vote took place on 29 March 2019: the majority against the government narrowed to 58, and a switch of votes by 30 opponents to a position of support would have reversed the result.

The second graphic shows all 34 Conservative MPs who voted against the government on this occasion, dividing them into advocates of a ‘harder’ Brexit and advocates of a ‘softer’ Brexit or Remain position (those highlighted are the members already identified in the previous tables).

Notably, this latter group makes up only six of the 34.

The other 28 could be seen as ‘hard’ Brexit supporters (many of them members of the European Research Group, or ERG, previously chaired by Jacob Rees-Mogg).

Had they voted with the government, it would have been nearly, but not quite, sufficient for the result to be overturned.

Had the 10 Brexit-supporting (and officially government-supporting) DUP MPs also voted with Theresa May and her ministers on 29 March, the deal would have been approved.

Amidst these debates, there are clearly key arguments about what Brexit means: whether Theresa May’s deal was somehow ‘Brexit in name only’, in a sense that is fundamentally little different to remaining in the EU.

Boris Johnson’s government still claims that it wishes to, and can, negotiate a preferable Brexit deal.

Meanwhile, the alternative that the government’s key opponents are now pursuing, most notably through the Benn-Burt Act (dubbed the ‘surrender’ or the ‘safeguard’ Act, depending different points of view), is a blocking, not of Brexit itself, but of a ‘no deal’ on 31 October.

This outcome, according to most independent analysis, is likely to have various damaging consequences.

There are hence at least three theoretical versions of Brexit: Theresa May’s deal, a notional alternative deal, and a ‘no deal’ Brexit. While the battles of recent weeks have shown the House of Commons determined to prevent the third of these outcomes, the failure of the first – as the above analysis shows – cannot be simply laid at the door of parliamentary ‘Remainers’.

Meanwhile it is yet to be seen whether the second option actually exists.

By Professor Meg Russell, Senior Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe and Director of the Constitution Unitat University College London. This piece was originally published on the Constitution Unit blog. 

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