How an unforced error lost Theresa May Labour votes on Brexit

In forcing MPs to vote for the divorce treaty and future relationship together, the Prime Minister has put a very low ceiling on the number of opposition rebels. 

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There are too many Conservative rebels for Theresa May to pass her Brexit deal, and far too few Labour ones. For the Prime Minister, that basic truth looks unassailable. But did it need to be?

There are increasing murmurs on the Labour benches that, while supporting the proposed post-Brexit relationship the PM has agreed with the EU is out of the question, the Withdrawal Agreement itself – the divorce treaty – could be just about swallowable.

When it comes to the meaningful vote on the deal, however, both will be voted on at once.

In a forthcoming interview with the New Statesman, Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan, says that May has made a major strategic mistake in putting the Withdrawal Agreement before the house alongside a non-binding political declaration on the future trade relationship with the EU.

“The vote that is going to be put to parliament is on the Withdrawal Agreement and a document that goes alongside that, which has no binding force, on the future relationship with the EU – which we haven’t really even begun to negotiate yet.

“The problem with what May is doing is that she is putting both the Withdrawal Agreement, which she could find a majority for in the House of Commons, to us alongside a statement on the future relationship, which it’s very unlikely that she’ll find a majority for in the House of Commons.

“To give you an example: if she were able to bring forward a Withdrawal Agreement that had a UK-wide customs union with the EU that enabled businesses like Heinz in my constituency to continue to trade with the EU, along with all of the other protocols that were already in the draft agreement, then I would be minded to vote for it in order to avoid the prospect of no deal.

“But the problem that she’s created for herself and for the country, is that by putting that to parliament with this statement on the future relationship, by refusing to give parliament any guarantees about that future relationship will look like, by failing to stand up to that hard group of Tory Brexiteers about a permanent UK-wide customs agreement, she’s making it virtually impossible for MPs like me to support it, for Labour as a whole to support it, and for the deal to get through.

“It’s really serious, because no-deal would be a disaster for my constituents and for the country as a whole, but this is why I think parliament needs to do much more than we’ve done so far and take the lead on pushing her to stand up to that group of Tory Brexiteers, giving some kind of shape and definition to that future relationship document that would be acceptable to most parliamentarians on each side of the divide.”

Similarly, Nandy’s Labour colleague Hilary Benn, the Brexit select committee chair, said yesterday that he did not object to the terms of the divorce – rather the vague nature of the political declaration that accompanied it. Labour’s six tests are also concerned with the future relationship and not the terms of withdrawal.

As far as preventing a no-deal scenario goes, agreement with Brussels on the latter is all that matters. So could May yet woo Labour rebels by tabling two separate votes on the Withdrawal Agreement and political declaration respectively?

The answer, unfortunately, is no. The EU (Withdrawal) Act, passed in June, states that both must be voted on at once. This is a problem of the government’s own making – as far as Brussels and the terms of the treaties are concerned, how parliament needed to vote, if at all, was solely a matter of domestic policy for the UK.

Linking both was a means of avoiding the accusation of a blind Brexit – or to draw the sting out of Brexiteer claims that Brussels would pocket the £39bn divorce bill and stiff the UK in trade negotiations. An unforeseen consequence is that it has shut off one of the few roads that Labour rebels just might have thought it safe to travel down.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.