The MPs who could cause no-deal aren’t the ones you think

We keep hearing that MPs will compromise to prevent no deal. It should alarm us that so many of them haven’t yet. 

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Ian Austin, the now independent MP for Dudley North, believes that Jeremy Corbyn would be a calamity as Prime Minister and that he has transformed the Labour party into a malign institution. Yesterday he voted against Margaret Beckett’s amendment to trigger an automatic parliamentary vote to prevent a no deal Brexit if the United Kingdom gets within seven calendar days of the exit door. Austin, who voted Remain in 2016, does not believe a No Deal Brexit is a good thing.

It doesn’t matter, in this instance, if you agree or disagree with Austin’s views on Corbyn, Brexit and a no deal Brexit: what matters is that is what Austin believes and we should assess his actions accordingly.

It is the politics of fantasy to believe that a no deal Brexit wouldn’t ultimately result in a Corbyn-led government, unless you believe that a No Deal Brexit is a desirable political outcome that voters will continue to support after it has actually taken place.

That holds whatever your analysis of Labour’s increase in both seats and votes in 2017 was. If you think that it was because of the policies laid down by Corbyn and by fatigue with austerity, then the desire for political change will obviously be higher if we have a no deal exit and the resulting chaos that comes out of it.

If your analysis of Corbyn’s victory is that Corbyn had a negative mandate – that he did well because Theresa May fought a terrible campaign, because the cuts had started to bite, because Remainers were angry, or any combination or version of the “right place in the right time” theory of the 2017 result – then you have to recognise that there is nothing that went wrong for British voters in 2017 that was more disruptive than a no deal exit would be. No deal means Corbyn.

People tend to blame the government even for things that happened on their watch but they could not have prevented – like the global financial crisis under Gordon Brown or the oil shock under Ted Heath – or things, like the support for the exchange rate mechanism, that were consensus positions held by both government and opposition. The main opposition, protected by our first past the post electoral system, tends to be the biggest beneficiary.

The reason why Austin’s vote matters is it is in microcosm an example of something that people analysing this situation months ago – including me – thought would happen not happening. The argument that anyone who looked carefully at the parliamentary arithmetic reached was essentially: there’s no majority for the deal negotiated by Theresa May, no desire in Parliament for a no deal Brexit, and insufficient support in Parliament for another referendum or revocation of Article 50. Eventually, to avert no deal, the situation that Parliament wants less than any other, a majority will be found to prevent it, because a large enough majority of MPs will put aside their political interests to prevent a No Deal Brexit.

It shouldn’t come as a shock to you to inform you that, as it stands, that hasn’t happened yet. In the case of Austin, his political interests shouldn’t even require that much aligning: he is extremely unlikely to be elected as an independent and preventing a No Deal Brexit is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, of preventing the Corbyn-led government he doesn’t want. Yet he’s still voting against measures that would prevent no deal.

That MPs who don’t believe a No Deal is a desirable outcome, and who believe that the leader of the opposition should not become Prime Minister, are still putting their concerns about what their constituents want out of Brexit over moving to prevent no deal, shows that the question that anyone saying, “MPs will ultimately put their interests aside to prevent no deal” must answer is, “They haven’t yet. If not now, when?”

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.