Even if Theresa May wants to delay the meaningful vote, she can't

There is no way to do so without the approval of MPs – and there is no incentive for Tory rebels and the DUP to let her.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Could Theresa May avoid a crushing defeat on Tuesday’s meaningful vote by delaying it altogether? That’s the suggestion from 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady, who told Newsnight that he would welcome its postponement until there was clarity on whether the United Kingdom could quit the Northern Ireland backstop unilaterally. 

“I think the most important thing is to have clarity about how we might remove ourselves from a backstop, Northern Ireland protocol situation if we were to enter into one in the future,” Brady said. “It’s having the answer to that question of substance that is most important, not the timing. So if that question can be answered in the course of the next few days then all well and good. If it can’t, then I certainly would welcome the vote being deferred until such time as we can answer that question.

It’s a striking intervention in several respects. The first is that by Brady’s standards it is a markedly political and unhelpful comment – we know that the backstop and the widespread aversion to it among Tory Brexiteers and the DUP is the root of Theresa May’s current predicament and her most acute political pain point. Even at the height of the European Research Group’s failed putsch last month, Brady – a Brexiteer – remained scrupulously loyal. That even he is going public with his unease bodes ill for the prospects of Downing Street keeping Tuesday’s defeat big, rather than very big.

The second is the premise of the question Brady is asking about the backstop. There’s already an abundance of clarity as far as the UK’s ability to exit it unilaterally is concerned: it doesn’t exist. That clarity has been provided repeatedly and at some length by the EU, Theresa May, and the legal advice from the attorney general, released yesterday. The question Brady wants answering was settled yonks ago in the only way Brussels and Dublin will allow it to be – that is, with the answer he doesn’t want to hear. 

The third striking thing about Brady’s interview, however, is that he is the most senior Conservative yet to suggest on the record that the meaningful vote be postponed. It has been reported in recent days that several cabinet ministers, chief among them Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, have suggested its cancellation in a bid to avoid the political damage a heavy defeat would inflict. But none have so far suggested this publicly.

The problem for the growing camp of advocates for this scenario is that the vote – much like the backstop – can’t be willed away unilaterally by the prime minister. Changing the date and time of the vote will mean amending the programme motion that dictates its procedure, which would require a vote in the Commons. Labour MP Chris Bryant, one of the foremost procedural wonks on the green benches, notes that ministers could move an adjournment motion before the vote on the withdrawal agreement, but that too would require MPs to vote.

Given that the government has no majority, Conservative rebels and the DUP could easily swing a vote against them and prevent them deferring defeat on the withdrawal agreement to an unspecified point in the future. It is arguably in their interests to do so, as it’s unlikely that the point of any postponement would be to answer Brady’s question on the backstop but rather to avoid a defeat. Giving Brady the answer he doesn’t want to hear was a precondition of getting a withdrawal agreement in the first place, so it’s hard to see what opponents of the deal gain from licencing a delay in the vote and giving it a reprieve.

Sources from the ERG and DUP camps agree. “All delay is can-kicking when we want to kick the can kicker,” says one Tory Brexiteer. Another backbench opponent of the deal adds that they doubt that Downing Street will seek a delay for that reason. “The only way for her to survive would be to lose the vote badly and fly to Brussels the next day to renegotiate the backstop.”

“A delay would only be beneficial if the time gained was used to ditch the backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement,” adds a senior DUP source, who also dismissed Theresa May’s suggestion of a Commons “lock” that would see MPs given a vote on entering the backstop. “Any alternative parliamentary wheeze just won’t cut it as it could never trump internationally binding text.” 

That, fundamentally, is the insurmountable hurdle Downing Street will have to reckon with if it tries to pull the vote. It can only do so with the blessing of those whose strategic self-interest is served by not giving the deal a stay of execution. For that reason, it’s still very difficult to see anything other than a big defeat happening on Tuesday – and not later. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.