The House of Commons has voted for the Internal Market Bill, which would allow the government to break international law and side-step provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement concerning the Irish border, specifically customs declarations and state aid, but the ultimate fate of the bill remains uncertain.
At least 20 Conservative MPs deliberately abstained on the bill, with many more declaring their intention to oppose the bill if it remains unamended. Second reading is traditionally used to indicate whether MPs support the overall thrust of the bill, and outside the vitally important sections that concern the Withdrawal Agreement, almost every Conservative MP supports measures to claw back infrastructure and regulatory powers from the devolved parliaments. It’s the clauses that relate to the Irish border protocol that are controversial.
Several Conservative MPs have informed their constituents that they plan to vote for the bill at second reading but to vote for amendments at committee stage, while many more Conservative MPs, including some who voted to prevent a no-deal Brexit but were allowed back into the fold, opted to support the government at second reading.
Taken together, there are enough potential would-be rebels for the government to be defeated at committee stage, when a number of amendments to the bill will be tabled. An effective and well-resourced whipping operation ought to be enough to prevent that, but, as we have seen already in this parliament, this Downing Street lacks a properly resourced and effective whipping operation. (This isn’t primarily an issue of competence. The whips’ office retains plenty of institutional memory and the ability to understand the problem – what it lacks is a prime minister and a Downing Street with the inclination to act on that problem.)
A number of known unknowns will decide whether the Internal Market Bill passes through committee stage unscathed. We don’t know yet what, if anything, the reaction of international markets will be, what the reaction of the European Union will be, and how that will shape opinion in Parliament one way or another. It’s possible that these things could sharpen the resolve of would-be rebels, but it’s equally possible that, if it looks like the government’s win today has had no ramifications outside of Westminster. We don’t know whether the consensus among would-be Tory rebels looking at tonight’s vote is that they can win concessions on the floor of the House of Commons, or if they look at the headline figures and decide that they can’t. Both views can be found among those contemplating rebellion at later stages of the bill, and we don’t know which will come out on top. The government could make a superficial concession which heads off a parliamentary defeat.
Then there are the two untapped sources of further rebellion – there are many more MPs like Sajid Javid, who backed Remain in 2016 but have never rebelled on a Brexit vote, for instance, and many more MPs like Rehman Chishti, committed Brexiteers who rejected Theresa May’s Brexit deal and backed Boris Johnson’s, but are highly uneasy about breaching international law. Of course, there has never been a parliamentary rebellion in which every potential rebel voted against the government, and many MPs who agree with either Javid or Chishti will swallow their consciences. But we don’t know how many of them won’t.
Going into the next stage of this process, the government’s problem is that at least 20 MPs have already rebelled and a further ten of their supporters have publicly declared their intent to do so later down the line –putting them dangerously close to the position where there are enough rebels floating around to overcome the combined might of the Conservative majority bolstered by eight DUP MPs. But the problem for the rebels is that, having failed to make a big dent in the government’s majority tonight, many would-be rebels may well decide that discretion is the better part of valour.
So while it’s possible that the government could lose or be forced into further concessions, and their parliamentary management is certainly poor enough that they might end up in that position, it doesn’t look all that likely tonight.