The Remain campaign lost in the country. But it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could prevent withdrawal, or at least set the terms, has loomed.
The government’s recent court defeat over triggering Article 50 has sharpened the conflict. Though ministers are appealing against the decision, all sides expect them to be defeated. Parliament will have its say. Speculation has surrounded the potential for MPs to use this moment, or the later vote on the Great Repeal Bill, to block or dilute Brexit. Theresa May has a working majority of just 14 but 20-30 Conservative MPs favour remaining in the single market.
The Tory Leavers, however, are losing little sleep over their foes. Having led many rebellions against David Cameron, they believe that the new “bastards” will be unable to emulate their triumphs. “Stirring up trouble is a craft,” a senior MP told me. “Who has the gravitas, the credibility and the patience required?” In their view, the Remainers lack a figurehead with the organisational nous to lead a successful revolt. The hard graft of parliamentary co-ordination requires greater effort than rhetorical sallies. George Osborne, who infuriated Brexiteers with his “punishment Budget” during the referendum, is regarded as too discredited to fill the void.
There is no prospect of Article 50 being blocked if parliament does secure a vote. Most of the Tory rebels (save for Ken Clarke) and Labour intend to vote for withdrawal. Once this process begins, and the government announces its high-level principles (expected before the year’s end), the Leavers believe the Remainers will struggle to obstruct Theresa May. Tory MPs expect her to pursue withdrawal from both the single market and the customs union. “May would never have set up Liam Fox’s department [International Trade] otherwise,” one Brexiteer noted.
He added that the Leavers needed to avoid “overreacting to every bump in the road”. They believe that No.10’s stern response to a leaked Deloitte memo suggesting that it lacked a Brexit plan obscured a raft of positive economic news: record employment figures, sterling’s recovery and major Google investment. “We’ve got to be careful we’re not giving oxygen to our opponents,” an MP said of the memo.