Why Theresa May shouldn’t rely on Labour rebels backing her Brexit deal

Labour MPs’ plan contains a pre-made excuse for not voting for her deal the first time – and that’s before the whips get to work.

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How many Conservative MPs will rebel against the Brexit deal when it comes before the House of Commons? Steve Baker, the head of the European Research Group, was the subject of knowing laughter yesterday after he claimed that “at least 40” MPs would do so – just a few weeks ago the figure was 80.

The truth is that Baker was answering two different questions: the 80 refers to the number of potential rebels, the 40 to the figure Baker thinks that the Tory whips will be able to get it down to. Both numbers look optimistic to me but the important debate isn’t whether there are 80 or 40 or 20 Conservative MPs who will vote against the government – but whether there are more than seven, the number required to wipe out the government’s parliamentary majority and leave them relying on help from outside. And there definitely are more than seven Conservative MPs who will vote against a deal as it stands.

Could Theresa May be bailed out by Labour rebels going the other way? Writing in the FT, Jim Pickard discusses the agonies of Labour MPs who don’t want to vote for the thin gruel that May will bring back but don’t want to risk a no-deal exit befalling their constituencies. Up to 30 Labour MPs could break the whip to save May’s bacon. That same “up to 30” figure appears courtesy of Oliver Wright in the Times.

It’s true that a lot of Labour MPs are privately very worried about the vote on the final deal. On the one hand, they know that voting for the deal gets the Conservative government out of jeopardy and perhaps secures a fourth term of Tory power into the bargain – oh, and it almost certainly represents their last act in Labour Party politics too. On the other hand, they know that no deal will hit their constituents hardest and feel they have to avoid it at all costs.

But a golden rule of any story about rebellions is that the word “up to” is always a synonym for “less than”. MPs don’t like rebelling – remember, even Jeremy Corbyn, the most rebellious MP in Labour Party history, only voted against the whip one time in every four – and as is human nature, they’re pretty good at finding reasons not to do it. The most important part of Wright’s story is that the detail of Labour MPs’ plan is to vote against the government and with the Labour whip the first time in order to make the political point and to vote with the government after the resulting crisis.

I’ve heard the same point from Labour MPs, with several making the comparison to the fate of the Troubled Asset Relief Programme (Tarp) in the United States: voted down thanks to GOP rebels the first time, voted through in a modified and more Democratic-friendly way on the second time of asking thanks to Democratic votes. It doesn’t bode well for May that Labour MPs’ plan contains a pre-made excuse for not voting for her deal on the first time of asking.

And that’s before the Labour whips have got to work. They will argue that voting down the deal in November or December doesn’t have to mean a no-deal exit in March and they’ll ask pro-European MPs if they really want to go down in flames just to preserve alignment in goods: and they’ll find a receptive audience to those messages. I’d back both whips’ offices to get the total number of rebels down: but with Labour’s whips starting from a lower base anyway, hoping that Labour dissidents will cancel out Tory rebels is a big, big gamble for May.

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.