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17 October 2019

Boris Johnson has a Brexit deal, but the chances of this parliament passing it are slim

The accord already has too many enemies. 

By Stephen Bush

Deal done. Boris Johnson has concluded a new Brexit deal that would put a regulatory border in the Irish Sea, limiting the scope of the backstop to Northern Ireland by allowing the rest of the United Kingdom far greater freedom to diverge from the European Union’s regulations than the UK-wide backstop would have done.

But the path to the deal passing is far from clear. It is guaranteed to get the votes of at least three of the four independents who voted for it last time – Stephen Lloyd, the Liberal Democrat currently sitting as an independent who promised voters in his Eastbourne constituency he would vote for a Brexit deal, Iain Austin, the former Labour MP who voted Remain and now backs Brexit, and Frank Field, the former Labour MP who voted to Leave. But it is not clear without looking at the detail of the agreement whether it will retain the support of Sylvia Hermon, the independent Unionist MP.

What about the five Labour MPs who voted for it last time? Kevin Barron, Jim Fitzpatrick and John Mann are retiring and are certain to vote for an agreement. But the votes of Caroline Flint and Rosie Cooper cannot be taken for granted, and the votes of other young and ambitious Labour MPs who want to back a Brexit deal, whether for reasons of ideology or of political convenience, are almost certainly a bridge too far.

That this is an altogether harder Brexit, particularly for Wales, makes it harder for Labour MPs to vote for it. That the Labour leadership will strain every sinew to defeat the agreement, and that the abolition of the UK-wide backstop paves the way for greater deregulation in the rest of the United Kingdom, means that the number of Labour votes for it will be very slim indeed.

Although they may end up with a subtly different group of five MPs, they are unlikely to get far beyond that.

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But more importantly, the provisions do not pass muster with the DUP and while their ten votes are set against the accord so too will that of Kate Hoey, Labour’s most committed Leaver.

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There is one small group of MPs worth watching: longtime Brexiteers on the party’s left, such as Ronnie Campbell, Dennis Skinner, and Kelvin Hopkins, now sitting as an independent. The group also arguably includes Graeme Stringer, a complex figure who is not easy to classify but who has a close working relationship with Jeremy Corbyn. These MPs are broadly aligned with the Corbyn project and have mostly voted against a second referendum but for anything that will inconvenience the Conservatives. They have done so for multiple reasons, once of which is that they trust, rightly or wrongly that Corbyn will ultimately protect Brexit. It may be beginning to dawn on them that, as one longterm ally put it to me, “Jeremy is a Brexiteer, but only in the same sense that David Cameron was a pro-European”. But while their votes could be decisive in a close vote, without the DUP, they are unlikely to have an impact.   

What about the 277 Conservatives who voted for it last time? Some have since lost the whip or voluntarily quit the party, but the government will certainly get 277 votes out of the Conservative party again – some will be the same MPs now sitting as independents, others will be committed Brexiteers attracted by Boris Johnson’s harder Brexit. But some former Conservatives to vote for the last Brexit deal won’t vote for this one as it is significantly harder.

So barring a sudden and unexpected change of fortunes, or a sudden change of heart among Labour backbenches, Johnson’s deal looks highly unlikely to pass. The big prize he has is that he has a deliverable deal capable of broadly uniting the Conservative party – a major prize, if he can win a parliamentary majority at the next election. But that “if” might turn out to be very large indeed.