The problem with Theresa May’s plan to use trade unions to win Labour’s support for her Brexit deal

We may be about to see the first implication of the changes to Labour’s procedures for reselecting sitting MPs.

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Could Theresa May save her deal by wooing Labour MPs? The Prime Minister, having belatedly realised that there is no Brexit outcome that can pass through the House of Commons with the votes of the Conservatives and the DUP alone, is holding meetings with Labour MPs. She has also telephoned Len McCluskey and Tim Roache, the leaders of the UK’s two biggest private sector trades unions, and may accept an amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement brought by four of the party’s backbenchers.

It’s a measure of May’s political tin ear and her aversion to working with other parties that it took this long: Yvette Cooper called for a cross-party commission to negotiate Brexit immediately after the general election, and the peak of May’s powers (remember that crazy post-Brexit summer when she was briefly as popular as Tony Blair in 1997?) was also the point when Labour MPs were at maximum skittishness about being seen to block Brexit.

Equally importantly, Labour’s procedures for how it reselects sitting MPs were rewritten at its last conference, with the major consequence being that the trades unions have lost their ability to veto any move to deselect candidates. That has big implications for both Labour and British politics and we may be about to see the first sign of that here. That McCluskey has publicly warned of the dangers of a second referendum and has privately spoken to MPs campaigning for a Norway-Plus arrangement gives Labour MPs an argument to make to their members about why they might ultimately vote for a Brexit deal. But that trade union leaders can no longer guarantee the safety of Labour MPs means that their support isn’t as valuable as it was before.

If we reach 11 March and parliament has yet to agree a deal, I don’t think that the Labour whips will be able to stop a critical mass of MPs, whether they are committed Remainers, converted Leavers or long-time Brexiteers, voting for anything to prevent a no-deal exit. 

But when everything depends on who blinks first, it’s small wonder that at least three cabinet ministers have instructed their local parties to prepare for an early election, with one telling their association that the contest will happen in February.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.