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21 August 2019updated 02 Sep 2021 5:37pm

As things stand, Theresa May’s Brexit deal is not going to pass parliament. So what’s next?

There are not enough Labour rebels to cancel out the Tory Brexiteers, pro-EU Tories wanting another referendum and the DUP. 

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May has reached a deal in principle with the EU27 (pending the approval of member states at a special summit, pencilled in for 25 November). What’s in it? The full document is not yet available but we know that there are at least two provisions that make the chances of it passing the Houses of Parliament look very, very thin. The first relates to the Irish border, which contains a measure of regulatory and customs alignment for the whole of the United Kingdom to maintain the status quo at the border, but crucially contains a deeper level of alignment for Northern Ireland than the rest of the United Kingdom. That is unacceptable to the DUP so you can strike ten votes off the government’s majority right off the bat, three more than the seven needed to eliminate the Conservative-DUP majority.

The deal also contains a number of shared provisions on state aid, taxation, labour market and environmental regulation that make it unacceptable to hardline Brexiteers in the Conservative Party and the committed Leavers in the parliamentary Labour party. (The key problem for that latter group are the restrictions on state aid.)  So you can scratch off the names of a few more Conservative Brexiteers. By my count, at least seven Conservative Brexiteers are already on the record objecting to the deal in language that makes it near-impossible to see how they will vote for the deal.

Most of the media focus is on whether or not Theresa May can survive, with coverage of possible cabinet resignations ranked into losses that the Prime Minister could not survive (starts with “Michael”, ends with “Gove”) and those that she could weather (Penny Mordaunt and Esther McVey). It’s true that Downing Street regards Gove as the cabinet minister above all others who they cannot afford to lose. But it’s also true – and just as important – that as far as votes in the House of Commons go, the government is already in a near-impossible position. Add any names from people currently on the frontbench to the list of dissenters and that position moves from “near-impossible” to just plain old “impossible”.

That has implications for the likelihood of Labour MPs breaking the party whip to bail out Theresa May’s deal. Many of their number want to avert a no-deal Brexit and worry that voting against May’s deal will trigger one, and others are worried what will happen to them if they get on the wrong side of their constituents.

But of course, Labour MPs in these two groups can count just as well as the rest of us, and they know full well that there aren’t enough of them to plausibly outnumber all the nailed-on Tory rebels. They know, too, that the subtext of the message coming from the leader’s office media outriders is that a vote for May’s deal will be painted as a vote that prevents a certain general election and a Labour government. Added to all that, that Boris Johnson, who is still a trusted figure among Leave voters even in Labour seats, will also be voting against the deal makes it easier for them to believe that they will be electorally safe voting against it.

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There are some Labour MPs whose local parties are as worried about their Leave problem as they are and can resist all of that – but the thing about this group is that it is nowhere near big enough to cancel out the rebellions of Conservative Brexiteers, pro-European Conservatives who want another referendum and the opposition of the DUP. Barring a sudden and drastic shift in the balance of political forces, May’s deal is not going to pass.

So the big question is not “what happens to Theresa May?” but “what happens to the country?”

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