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20 June 2018

Today’s “meaningful vote” on the Brexit bill is unlikely to be very meaningful at all

Rebellions from Conservative MPs tend to materialise everywhere but the floor of the House of Commons.

By Stephen Bush

Is there enough Anna Soubry in the Conservative Party to make up for the amount of Kate Hoey in the Labour Party? That’s the question that no one is quite certain of the answer to as the House of Commons prepares to vote on the meaningful vote amendment.

The government has been wooing Labour Leavers to try and make up for the defections of Conservative Remainers, and while they have certainly had some success, no one is quite sure if they have had enough to see themselves over the line.

But does it matter? The Downing Street line is that the meaningful vote will make it harder for the Prime Minister to negotiate a good EU-UK deal. But the truth is that politicians in the EU27 know that Theresa May is in a weak position and that she may not be able to pass any deal, regardless of its content, not because of what a handful of Tory rebels do or do not do; but because they can read the papers just like anyone else.

Closer to home, I’m not sure that today’s vote is as significant as everyone thinks it is. As one pro-Leave Tory MP pointed out to me yesterday, whether the government wins or loses the vote today, come the crunch vote itself, pro-European Conservatives will know that they can’t vote against the deal without capsizing the government. That calculation is also high in the minds of wavering pro-European Conservatives, as well. As one Cameron aide once lamented to me, the problem has always been that unlike their pro-Leave opposition counterparts, pro-Remain Conservatives have never been willing to be “suicide bombers” against their own leadership.

Soft Brexiteers in the Conservative Party also know that Labour will only ever be veto players, as the one thing Labour will be able to unify around is that May’s Brexit deal is not good enough, whether because it has too much immigration, not enough market access, too big a role for the European Court Justice, or god knows what else. But while Labour can agree to vote against Theresa May’s deal, they can’t agree on what to replace it with. Even should Jeremy Corbyn be hit by a lightning bolt that turns him into a pro-European, Brexit’s most important guarantors in the Labour party – the minority of Labour MPs who would rebel against anything that kept us in the single market – aren’t going anywhere.

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So why, would-be Conservative rebels are asking themselves, should they make trouble for themselves? But even if enough of them rebel today – and don’t forget that Conservative rebellions tend to materialise everywhere but the floor of the House of Commons – the powerful forces and personal factors that keep Tory MPs in line mean that the “meaningful vote” probably won’t be.