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18 October 2019

These are the groups of MPs that make it likely Johnson’s Brexit deal will pass

Taken together, the prospects for passing Johnson's deal are better than I first thought.

By Stephen Bush

Who are the groups who will decide whether tomorrow’s deal passes or fails, what are they saying they will do tomorrow, and what do I think they will do tomorrow?

I’ve gone through my contacts book to talk to the various wavering groups and to get a sense of where I think they are at. I’ve tried to balance “private information” with a sense of scepticism about the reality of how votes usually play out: the reality is that there is almost always a bigger rebellion in private than in public, apart from when it becomes obvious the rebellious side is going to win, which tends to mean that most MPs decide they might as well get in on the action.

One of the groups you will notice are not in this list, at least not explicitly, are “the 21 Conservatives who lost the whip to stop no deal”. The reason for this is that this group is too politically heterodox for this question to be useful. Asking how “the whipless 21” will vote is only marginally less of a waste of time than asking how “the Blairites” (a group which includes Caroline Flint at one end of the Brexit pole and Stephen Twigg at the other) plan to vote.

In practice, these MPs are still Conservatives and on most non-Brexit questions are pretty reliable. It’s not helpful to go “the government has a majority of minus kajillion billion!” The government in practice starts with a majority of zero thanks to the Conservatives, whipless or not, and the DUP. If it gains one vote net from the pile marked “MPs sitting for an opposition party” then it has notionally won the vote.

But the government has problems on its own side.

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Unionist Brexiteers

Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal is a bad deal for Unionists and a good one for Brexiteers: it secures a very high level of regulatory divergence, futureproofs against England, Scotland and Wales being pulled into a softer Brexit to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland, but in reality keeps Northern Ireland within the regulatory and customs orbit of the European Union in perpetuity.

We know that the DUP cares a lot more about the Union than it does about Brexit, and will uniformly vote against it. We know, too, that the average European Research Group member cares a lot more about Brexit than the Union – but some care equally about both.

One of that latter group yesterday told me they were “torn” about which to prioritise, and there are several who feel the same way.

But ultimately, when MPs are torn about which way to vote, they tend to pick the option that allows them to stick with their tribe.  So while I don’t think that the number of Conservative MPs in this group who will ultimately rebel is zero, I think it is probably closer to zero than it is to ten, the number at which I think it becomes implausible to find enough Labour MPs to cancel out the DUP and Unionist Brexiteers in the Tory party.

But let’s say that between the DUP and the Unionist Brexiteers we get 12 to 13 votes against – that means that government needs an equivalent number from elsewhere.  And there are still more Tory MPs to worry about…

Conservative MPs for a second referendum

The bulk of the whipless Conservative MPs are supporters of a deal and will vote for one. But there are two tendencies within it that won’t. Conservative MPs for a second referendum are the easiest to predict because they are out and proud. However there aren’t very many of them – but still, I would expect two to four to vote against it on these grounds.

That increases the number of MPs to get over the majority mark to 14 to 17.  For context, the biggest single rebellion to harden or not be seen to block Brexit on the Labour side is 15 and the total number of MPs to rebel ever is 22. So at this point I’d say that the deal is in the danger zone, albeit only narrowly. What about…

Conservative MPs for a softer Brexit

To reiterate: most of the whipless Conservative MPs will vote for this deal. Some, however, have hinted that they want something softer with a smaller economic cost.

I’m going to talk in greater detail further down about my unease about some of these numbers but this is the group that I am the most uncertain about. Private information is a useful gauge but it is at its best when we can temper it against public behaviour. But Conservative MPs have never faced a choice like the one they face on Saturday. How seriously should we take them when they say off the record that they will rebel because this Brexit is too hard?

I’m going to artificially cap this at one, just because it is very hard to judge. That means that you need 15 to 18 votes from the opposition parties.  Let’s start with the…

Corbynsceptic Independents

There are two sets of ex-Labour MPs sitting as independents at the moment: those who left to form Change UK but have not joined the Liberal Democrats, who are not going to vote for this deal under any circumstances. Then we have the MPs who have left as sole operators: Ivan Lewis, John Woodcock, Iain Austin and Frank Field.

Austin and Field have already voted for May’s deal. I would be astonished if at least one of Lewis or Woodcock didn’t join them.  That leaves you needing between nine to 16 votes from the rest of the opposition.

The Liberal Democrats

Stephen Lloyd, currently sitting as an independent, but elected under Liberal Democrats while pledging to his constituents not to block Brexit, has resigned the whip in order to avoid embarrassing his party. He has consistently voted for a Brexit deal and against a no deal and will continue the habit.

Norman Lamb has made pro-deal noises but this is a very hard Brexit, and the Liberal Democrats will pull out all the stops to persuade him not humiliate them on his way out (he is retiring from Parliament).

So let’s say that in the end the Conservatives get just Stephen Lloyd’s vote, meaning that they need eight to 15 Labour votes. How about the…

Leftwing Brexiteers on the Labour benches

Four MPs elected under Labour colours as out-and-proud Leavers are still on the party’s benches (Dennis Skinner, Graham Stringer, Kate Hoey, and Ronnie Campbell) and a fifth (Kelvin Hopkins) had the whip withdrawn due to allegations of sexual harassment but continues to follow the party whip in Parliament.  Three (Hopkins, Skinner, Campbell), are on the left, as broadly, is Graham Stringer.

Hopkins, Skinner, Stringer and Campbell have mostly been willing to put their commitment to Brexit to one side to inconvenience the government and help keep the Corbyn project on the road. This is partly because of their loyalty to Corbyn, and partly because of a belief that when push came to shove, the Labour leader would make sure Brexit was seen through.

There are two interpretations of Ronnie Campbell’s announcement that he will vote for the deal. The first is that he is ultimately stepping down and therefore is a special case, and the second is that he at least is now of the view that Corbyn is not going to make sure Brexit happens so he had better take steps himself. Could he take Skinner and Hopkins with him? I find it hard to imagine him taking Skinner, but between himself, Stringer and Hopkins my understanding is that there will be at least two, perhaps three votes for a deal.

So that means you need five to 14 Labour votes.

Committed Labour Brexiteers on the party’s right

Kate Hoey, the last of her kind: an MP on the party’s right who is ideologically committed to Brexit, will not vote for this deal because the DUP is voting against and because it creates a regulatory border down the Irish Sea. So the search for five to 14 Labour votes goes on.

Reconciled Remainers on the Labour benches

Whether you go for the lower bound of five or the upper limit of 14 there are definitely enough Labour MPs who are, shall we say, deal-curious, to get Boris Johnson’s deal over the line.  

In fact, if you go for the bottom end of our assumptions – if you assume that both Stephen Lloyd and Norman Lamb vote for the deal, that all the Labour Lexiteers decide that they must act now to make sure Brexit happens, that the ERG falls unanimously behind the Brexit deal because who cares what the DUP thinks – then you can pass the deal just with the MPs who voted for May’s deal on the third time of asking, plus Sarah Champion, who has confirmed she will vote for the deal. Her votes, along with Kevin Barron, Jim Fitzpatrick, Caroline Flint and Rosie Cooper, would pass the deal.

Of course, at the upper end of our assumptions, then these votes aren’t enough. If I am being overly cynical about the ERG’s commitment to the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or have underestimated the willingness of Conservatives to vote against a hard Brexit, then there aren’t realistically enough Labour votes to get the deal through.

And the fear that there aren’t the votes has its own momentum: it’s one thing if you are a Labour MP to make a bold play to pass Brexit, but quite another to make a bold play, attract all the consequences of voting it through and then lose.

But I think that Labour MPs who want to back a deal will hear that they won’t lose the whip, will do similar sums and think: we can do it this time. And it’s why, assuming nothing major changes, it looks more likely than not to me that Johnson’s deal will pass tomorrow.

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