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9 February 2017

Theresa May has secured a strong position in the Commons, but it comes with a price tag

The Prime Minister's majority is larger than it looks. But it comes with a hefty bill. 

By Stephen Bush

And we’re out! The House of Commons voted to trigger Article 50 last night by 494 to 122. 52 Labour MPs joined the SNP, the SDLP, the Liberal Democrats and Caroline Lucas in voting against triggering, including Clive Lewis, who quit the shadow cabinet in order to do so.

The scale of the majority – and the strength of the government’s majority in resisting every amendment put to the bill – makes it difficult for the House of Lords to put up much fight. But watch out for what they do on the rights of EU citizens. Harriet Harman’s amendment guaranteeing the rights of people already living in the United Kingdom was defeated in the Commons, but is supported by 80 per cent of the British public according to polling by British Future.

When the Lords goes head-to-head with the elected chamber, they tend to pick battles where they know they have the public behind them.

Back to the elected chamber: the large and stable majority for the government’s original bill attests to the benefits of Theresa May’s long strategy of wooing the DUP. Getting that party onside has been a major priority for May since she got the keys to Downing Street, hence their invitation to Conservative party conference and May’s silence on the ongoing RHI scandal at Stormont. That’s the difference between a fragile Tory majority of 16 to a healthy one of 32. Time and again, Labour’s amendments foundered on the rock of that alliance.

But that deal comes with one hell of a pricetag attached. One of the amendments defeated yesterday was the requirement that the principles lay down in the Good Friday Agreement be respected. The idea that the Westminster government is an honest broker between the two sides at Stormont, already pretty fragile, may have gone down with it.

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Much of the focus today is on Labour and their difficulties reconciling their electoral coalition to Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s cause hasn’t been helped by an ill-judged tweet suggesting the “fight starts now”, when, by most standards, the fight was either on 23 June 2016 or last night, and was lost, either 52 per cent to 48 per cent or by 494 to 122. Lewis has traded his seat in the shadow cabinet for the affections of the party’s activists, and, more importantly, has blunted a Liberal Democrat revival in his own seat of Norwich South.  

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There are many difficulties for anyone predicting the end of Jeremy Corbyn; not least that the 52 rebels are effectively a scale model of the PLP in all its ideological hues. That is not the basis for a successful leadership bid by anyone.

The reality is that the settled will of much of the PLP is that they had to vote for Article 50. Had the whip gone the other way, there would have been a considerably larger rebellion. In any case, what really matters – not just for yesterday but for our Brexit course in particular and the Northern Irish situation in general – is the de facto Conservative-DUP coalition in the House.

And that’s going to have far bigger consequences than any number of tweets by the Labour leader.