Does the government have the votes to pass its Brexit strategy through the House of Commons? That’s the question that is occupying essentially everyone at Westminster.
From a numerical perspective, it seems clear that the answer is no: the number of Conservative MPs who are opposed to Theresa May’s approach is far greater than the seven needed to defeat her. But the reason why no one is quite sure is that, historically, most parliamentary rebellions are smaller than the number of people who talk about rebelling.
And the government has good reason to believe that it may be able to peel off considerable numbers of rebels away from the brink. May’s Brexit approach has retained the support of among other politicians, Dominic Raab, Kemi Badenoch and Michael Gove, all of whom have strong Brexit bona fides. Not all whipping involves straight conversations with party whips and MPs: it also involves facilitating meetings and presentation with other politicians, be that ministers who take worried MPs through their concerns, or trusted MPs who reassure them that things will be alright. (As a case in point, Labour whips sat worried Labour Leavers down for meetings with Dennis Skinner, the longest-serving and arguably most respected Labour Brexiteer, to explain why voting for the meaningful vote was not the same as blocking Brexit. He was a much more reassuring figure to Labour’s Brexiteers than Keir Starmer, previously a Remainer, would have been.)
But I would say that the immediate problem is not what May’s Brexit strategy means for her relationship with committed Brexiteers, who are split on the issue, but her already-fraught relationship with Conservative MPs in marginal seats. It’s a long-running source of irritation among Tory MPs elected in 2010 (and to a lesser extent 2015) that whereas everything David Cameron did flowed through their worries and with the intention of keeping their seats safe, everything May does flows through safe seats like her own, rather than keeping them in a job.
If you are an MP in a marginal seat (let’s say Mansfield), you don’t have religion on the European issue but your constituency voted heavily to Leave. You are already jittery about Brexit and what your voters make of that. But in the autumn, the government is planning to find some extra tax revenue in order to spend a further £20bn on the NHS. (The plan is to end the fuel duty freeze, a hugely popular pillar of David Cameron’s 2015 re-election.) At this point, you will be feeling very worried indeed.
It may be that the first parliamentary consequence of May’s new Brexit strategy is not felt in any of her Brexit bills but her domestic agenda.