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11 September 2017

The EU Withdrawal Bill is just the start of Theresa May’s uphill battle

Many in business and at Westminster privately expect the government to collapse sooner rather than later.

By Stephen Bush

Monday night is fight night: the government faces its first major vote since the loss of its parliamentary majority, over the second reading of the legislation formerly known as the Great Repeal Bill. (Parliamentary clerks insisted it be called the EU Withdrawal Bill on the grounds that it doesn’t repeal anything and that adjectives in bill names are like, sooooo American.) 

Theresa May ought to be home and dry on this one, as Conservative Remainers don’t want to play and her majority will in any case be bolstered by Labour rebels (one of their number, Caroline Flint, confirmed she will vote with the government on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning).

But the bad news for the PM is that every night is fight night. Conservative whips are buttering up their charges who will have to get used to staying in the Commons late into the night. Labour’s secondary target with late sittings are the DUP, who of course have further to travel to get back to their constituencies and for whom late votes are even more disruptive.

Minority government is painful, which is why so many in business and at Westminster privately expect the government to collapse sooner rather than later.

But there’s a big change in British politics since our last period of majority-less government: the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which sharply limits what constitutes a confidence vote and makes it far harder for a government to fall. (It even allows a 14-day do-over after a confidence vote, further limiting the government’s weakness to an election it doesn’t want.) The government can lose even a major vote on its budget or on whether or not to go to war, dust itself off and carry on almost as if nothing has happened. (Don’t forget that David Cameron did both, with tax credits and the Syria vote.)

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The snap election shows us that any governing party who wants an election can get one, as the opposition parties can hardly turn down an opportunity to change who runs the country. But it still provides a great deal of protection to the sitting government – and, therefore, a lot more leverage to Conservative backbenchers and a lot less chance of another unexpected election that many in the City of London hope will ensure the softest of Brexits.

But there’s an important caveat: although that’s all true in terms of what the Fixed Term Parliaments Act means in law, it’s not as widely understood by politicians as it perhaps should be. There’s always a conflict about what a constitution actually says and about what people think it says.  

As far as the British constitution goes, what’s written is clear – the government is safe barring a string of well-located by-elections and can shrug off any number of defeats. (Parking for a moment what those defeats do to, in no particular order: Conservative chances at the next election, Theresa May’s hope of remaining as PM, and Britain’s chances of a disorderly exit from the EU.) But as to what MPs and pundits actually think should happen when the government starts collecting regular defeats – well, that’s not clear at all.