Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. The Staggers
11 January 2019

The problem with Theresa May’s plan to use trade unions to win Labour’s support for her Brexit deal

We may be about to see the first implication of the changes to Labour’s procedures for reselecting sitting MPs.

By Stephen Bush

Could Theresa May save her deal by wooing Labour MPs? The Prime Minister, having belatedly realised that there is no Brexit outcome that can pass through the House of Commons with the votes of the Conservatives and the DUP alone, is holding meetings with Labour MPs. She has also telephoned Len McCluskey and Tim Roache, the leaders of the UK’s two biggest private sector trades unions, and may accept an amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement brought by four of the party’s backbenchers.

It’s a measure of May’s political tin ear and her aversion to working with other parties that it took this long: Yvette Cooper called for a cross-party commission to negotiate Brexit immediately after the general election, and the peak of May’s powers (remember that crazy post-Brexit summer when she was briefly as popular as Tony Blair in 1997?) was also the point when Labour MPs were at maximum skittishness about being seen to block Brexit.

Equally importantly, Labour’s procedures for how it reselects sitting MPs were rewritten at its last conference, with the major consequence being that the trades unions have lost their ability to veto any move to deselect candidates. That has big implications for both Labour and British politics and we may be about to see the first sign of that here. That McCluskey has publicly warned of the dangers of a second referendum and has privately spoken to MPs campaigning for a Norway-Plus arrangement gives Labour MPs an argument to make to their members about why they might ultimately vote for a Brexit deal. But that trade union leaders can no longer guarantee the safety of Labour MPs means that their support isn’t as valuable as it was before.

If we reach 11 March and parliament has yet to agree a deal, I don’t think that the Labour whips will be able to stop a critical mass of MPs, whether they are committed Remainers, converted Leavers or long-time Brexiteers, voting for anything to prevent a no-deal exit. 

But when everything depends on who blinks first, it’s small wonder that at least three cabinet ministers have instructed their local parties to prepare for an early election, with one telling their association that the contest will happen in February.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Topics in this article :