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How to win a Brexit vote: The Parliament arithmetic facing May

Oct 14 2018 14:26
Robert Hutton, Bloomberg

Prime Minister Theresa May looks close to getting her Brexit deal, but can she get it through Parliament?

She doesn’t have a majority, and her Conservative Party is fundamentally split. Nevertheless, one Cabinet minister close to the subject said last week the goal is not just to win by one or two votes - but do so with a comfortable majority.

That would mean not just a lot of Tory lawmakers voting for it, but the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party and a significant chunk of the Labour Party, too. The DUP are signed up to vote with May, though they’re warning they may not be able to if her compromises put up barriers between Northern Ireland and Britain. Labour is clear it won’t support her as things stand.

May needs the support of at least 320 lawmakers to win a vote. There are 315 Conservatives, and 10 members of the DUP. Of the Conservatives, she can, in theory, count on her “payroll vote’’ - around 150 members of Parliament who would have to quit official positions to vote against her. Then there’s another 80 or so who are fundamentally loyal.

After that, things get trickier.

The only other place she could realistically hope to find votes is among the 257 Labour members, who will be ordered to vote against May unless she opts for much closer ties with the EU. But a big win would require some to rebel and support the prime minister.

How might she maximise the Tory support and also win some votes from Labour?

“The trick in politics is setting the question,’’ a Labour MP said.

So here are the questions May’s team could ask:

“Don’t you want to back your government?’’

The pitch: This is your government, vote for it.

Aimed at: 315 Conservative MPs, 10 DUP members

The problem: Around 40 Tories are implacably opposed to what May is doing, and another 40 really don’t like it. Former Brexit minister Steve Baker, who’s organising them, says those numbers are going up as the prime minister appears to make further concessions. The DUP is also determined to vote against anything that treats Northern Ireland differently from Britain.

“Do you want a no-deal Brexit?’’

The pitch: It’s this deal, or no deal. Vote it down, and Britain will crash out of the EU in chaos, needing side agreements with the EU just to keep planes flying. There’ll be long queues on motorways and approaching ports, the pound will crash, carmakers will leave. Do you want that on your conscience?

Aimed at: In theory, almost everyone in Parliament - except the 40 or so Tories who actually want what they’re calling a “World Trade Brexit’.’

The problem: Credibility. Would May really take her government down a no-deal road? Even if she did, would Parliament let her? Conservative Tom Tugendhat has suggested the government would fall if it looked like happening. And it would only take seven Tories to side with the opposition in a confidence vote against the government to force a general election.

“Are you willing to risk Brexit not happening?’’

The pitch: It’s this deal or no Brexit. Vote us down and you risk triggering a chain of events that leads to a second referendum or a general election, ending up ultimately with the 2016 vote overturned or ignored.

Aimed at: The same 80 Tories on Baker’s list. Fewer than five Brexiteer Labour MPs.

The problem: Brexiteers argue that May’s strategy already amounts to Brexit In Name Only.

Besides, they say, votes already passed in Parliament means Britain is leaving the EU - deal or no deal - in March (though this is hotly debated by parliamentary veterans).

“Are you going to defy the will of the people?’’

The pitch: You don’t like Brexit, but the people you represent voted for it. And if you vote stop it from happening, we’ll make sure they know.

Aimed at: Around 10 Labour MPs who have indicated they can be persuaded along these lines. Around 20 Tories who want a soft Brexit.

The problem: The situation is now less clear-cut than the 2017 vote to trigger the Article 50 Brexit process, when 498 Labour and Conservative MPs voted with the government to show they respected the referendum result. Lawmakers looking for an excuse not to back this flavor of Brexit will be able to point to the Tory Brexiteers who are voting against it as well.

“Do you want Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister?’’

The pitch: If May’s deal falls, it could lead to a general election which Labour stands a good chance of winning.

Aimed at: Every Tory MP. And privately, quite a few Labour members who dislike their party leader as well.

The problem: Plausibility again. May can’t trigger a general election on her own - she either needs a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons, or to lose a confidence vote. Potential rebels say they can vote down May’s deal, but then support her in a confidence vote.

“Don’t you want all this finished?’’

The pitch: This is the deal on the table. The country needs to get on with it so businesses can plan and politicians can focus on voters’ bigger priorities.

Aimed at: Every Conservative. Perhaps up to 30 Labour MPs.

The problem: All of the above - though this could still be the government’s most compelling case. One Labour MP, Lisa Nandy, has said this is where her constituents are; another said this argument potentially appeals to plenty of colleagues.

But defeating May in this vote is the likeliest route to a general election and, potentially, a Labour government. That means any Labour MP who voted to - in effect - save the premier would know they run the risk of being driven out of the party. The consensus among Labour number-crunchers is that while there are plenty who would sacrifice themselves to keep Britain in the EU’s single market, it’s hard to imagine any doing so for whatever compromise May brings back from Brussels.

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