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25 January 2019

Tory MPs fear grassroots backlash over Cooper amendment

For would-be rebels, the risk of being seen to stop Brexit is a bridge too far.

By Patrick Maguire

Without a significant number of Conservative rebels, any attempt to take advantage of the in-built Commons majority against a no-deal Brexit is doomed. That is both a basic fact of parliamentary arithmetic and the object lesson we learned from Yvette Cooper’s successful move to amend budget legislation so that ministers could not use their financial powers to implement no deal without extending Article 50 earlier this month.

Back then, the votes of 20 Conservative MPs saw Cooper’s amendment pass by a slim majority of seven. Crucially, they included a number of former ministers not known as habitual rebels on Brexit: most notably Richard Benyon, Oliver Letwin, Nicholas Soames, and Michael Fallon.

Cooper will need to better that tally – and attract Conservative rebels beyond the dozen or so usual suspects – if she is to repeat that feat and pass her amendment to Tuesday’s meaningful vote, which proposes an extension of Article 50 in the event that no Brexit deal has been passed by 26 February.

The mechanism Cooper is proposing to stop a no-deal scenario has made many of her colleagues uneasy. For some in Leave-majority seats in the North and Midlands, the politics of delaying Brexit are just as fraught as those of being seen to seek to stop it with a second referendum.

So even if Jeremy Corbyn whips his MPs to vote for the amendment – widely assumed, but not yet confirmed – there will inevitably be a considerably bigger number of Labour rebels than the three Leavers who defied the whip on Cooper’s amendment to the Finance Bill. Passing this amendment, then, means convincing more Tory rebels than last time.

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Can Cooper do it? Tory sources are pessimistic. A number of those MPs who have only recently broken the habit of a lifetime to rebel over Brexit are taking considerable heat from their constituency associations for doing so. So vociferous are members’ objections that one former cabinet minister is wary that they would risk deselection by voting for the Cooper amendment, and is unlikely to do so as a result.

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Both of these swing constituencies of MPs – Labour and Tory – find themselves in the same bind. They do not want a no-deal scenario, but nor are they prepared to take preventative action that creates the impression they want to stop Brexit altogether.

Cooper’s falls into that category, especially given the number high-profile Remainers and advocates for a second referendum who have rowed in behind it. Tory Brexiteers have made much of the fact that Labour peer Andrew Adonis, the human form of the FBPE hashtag, is introducing the bill in the Lords. Otherwise persuadable colleagues are finding it more difficult to justify backing the amendment as a result: it looks less like procedural tinkering in the national interest, and more and more like a Trojan horse for continuity Remain.

In these scenarios, would-be rebels are always inclined to take the path of least resistance. That is especially true for those who don’t rebel very often, which, coincidentally, is precisely the pool Cooper is fishing in. She is also competing with another anti no-deal amendment, from Labour’s Jack Dromey and Tory Caroline Spelman, which merely states MPs’ opposition and does not propose a mechanism for delaying Brexit. It is already the most popular on the order paper: faced with a choice between Cooper’s or Dromey and Spelman’s, Tory MPs beyond the dozen or so reliable anti-Brexit rebels are more likely to pick the latter. And barring a free vote or mass ministerial resignations, that stacks the odds against Cooper’s amendment.

We are still some distance away from the point where that mythical majority against no-deal agrees on something that isn’t what they don’t want.