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2 July 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 1:34pm

Why Labour MPs could revoke Article 50 rather than pass a deal

By Patrick Maguire

Finally: some good news for Theresa May. Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan, has said that she would vote for the Brexit legislation that the Prime Minister tried and failed to bring before parliament in the days before her resignation. 

Speaking on the BBC’s Politics Live earlier this afternoon, Nandy – an outspoken opponent of a second referendum – said her preference was to vote for a deal along the lines of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill that May was ultimately deposed before introducing.

That legislation was to include a package of protections on workers’ rights and the environment, as well as a role for parliament in setting the negotiating mandate for the future relationship. The bad news for both May and Nandy, of course, is that the Conservative party wouldn’t wear it – and given what we know about the Brexit policies of Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson, it is unlikely to ever return. 

This, in a nutshell, is the problem for Nandy and the 14 or so Labour MPs like her. Their preference has always been for a negotiated exit above anything else – particularly a second referendum, but also a no-deal scenario. Yet only five of them – Caroline Flint, Rosie Cooper, Kevin Barron, John Mann and Jim Fitzpatrick – ended up voting for May’s deal by the third time of asking. The rest, among them Nandy and others who have since stated their desire to vote for a deal, like Gareth Snell, rejected it three times. (Snell now says that decision was a mistake.)

At the time, those voting against the deal justified their decision on policy grounds, and it was only once May agreed to enshrine their demands in law that they were more forthcoming. The politics, however, have now changed significantly – exit May, enter Farage – and sources close to those 15 Labour MPs who pushed Downing Street for concessions on workers’ rights say they are ready to vote for a deal. 

But survey the Tory leadership field and it isn’t immediately clear that there’ll ever be another deal to vote for. Some hope that Boris Johnson will bring forward May’s deal “one last time, with small tweaks and more helpful advice from Geoffrey Cox”. As one Labour source acknowledges, it’s a high risk strategy – particularly given that Johnson has taken to calling said deal a “dead letter” on the campaign trail. 

Nor is there any internal consensus on what a satisfactory accord would look like. Roughly speaking, deal-inclined Labour MPs fall into three categories: those who voted for the deal on one or all of the three occasions they’ve been asked already, those who regret not doing so, and those, like Nandy, who want to vote for something qualitatively different. 

So even in the event that a new prime minister does return with a revised package, there is no guarantee that Labour MPs would move to vote for it in sufficient numbers to make up for the inevitable shortfall of Tories. Add to that the unpalatable prospect of propping up a Johnson government – a bridge too far for some – and it looks pretty unlikely that those MPs will get the deal they prefer, even if their number increases once trigger ballots are out of the way.

More fundamentally, of course, that means those MPs who want a deal but not a no-deal are likely to end up facing a straight choice between the latter option and revoking Article 50. Nandy has made clear that in those circumstances her preference is to revoke, which is very much the majority view. The passage of a deal before October 31 will depend on the number of Labour MPs who decide the political pain is worth it to avoid that potentially explosive choice.

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