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The Brexit wreckers

Conservative MPs may yet be forced to decide if they are keenest to avoid a general election, a second referendum or a soft Brexit. 

Theresa May managed something this week that few MPs thought she still had the ability to do: she surprised them. The Prime Minister has grown fond of making statements outside Downing Street that say very little of interest and add nothing to the Brexit debate other than bile. But on 2 April, she acknowledged that there can be no Brexit deal without the support of the majority of Labour MPs, and so she made a direct offer to Jeremy Corbyn, her great Labour rival, to shape the final outcome.

One Liberal Democrat likened her gambit, which enraged so many of her MPs, to David Cameron’s “big, open and comprehensive offer” to form a coalition in 2010, and predicted that it was intended to have a similar effect. Corbyn immediately accepted the offer to meet May: he instinctively believes that the referendum result ought to be honoured and has a sincere fear of a no-deal Brexit. But he also wants to be able to fight and win the next election, and he knows that his Brexit demands – a customs union, for instance – have the potential to split the Tory party.

Yet what is most likely to happen now is that MPs will once again be given an opportunity to vote on how to resolve Brexit – and the government’s hope is that no outcome, other than a delay blamed on the Labour opposition, can be agreed by this parliament.

The Commons is so fractious and divided that is hard to see what a majority of MPs now want – other than some rest. MPs aren’t just united by a lack of sleep but a shared antipathy to almost everything. A majority of them dislike the withdrawal deal that Theresa May has negotiated with the EU. A different but overlapping majority opposes any plausible form of negotiated exit from the bloc. A third differently composed majority opposes measures that would stop Brexit or throw it back to the people.

The one thing that a majority of MPs can reliably do is vote to deplore the prospect of leaving the EU without any deal at all. The trouble is that parliament has already voted for a no-deal exit by triggering Article 50. The only ways to prevent no deal are to reach an accord with the EU over the terms of leaving or to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit. MPs have shown no desire for either way out of the deadlock.

A series of indicative votes, in which MPs voted to take control of the parliamentary timetable in an attempt to resolve the deadlock, merely exacerbated the crisis. As expected, the first set of votes on 27 March failed to produce a clear way forward.

A motion in the name of Ken Clarke to keep the UK in the customs union came within eight votes of passing. A motion in the name of Margaret Beckett to put any Brexit deal to the people, with the option to accept it or to remain in the EU, attracted more support than any other motion put forward, but was also more strongly opposed, losing by 27 votes. The Common Market 2.0 proposals, laid down in the name of Nick Boles (who this week, in despair, resigned the Tory party whip) to keep the UK in the single market and customs union after Brexit, attracted fewer votes in support than either but also aroused less opposition than Clarke’s or Beckett’s proposals.

The theory behind the indicative votes was that MPs would take the time between the two voting sessions to hammer out a compromise. Some did: Jeremy Corbyn put aside his hesitations finally to back a second referendum.

The choice is one that many in Corbyn’s inner circle fear will exert a heavy cost at a general election. But the Labour leader made his move for three reasons, the first being his aversion to no deal. The second is the threat of being outflanked by the new breakaway faction, the Independent Group, which has announced its intention to establish itself as a bona fide political party called Change UK. The worry is not that Change UK will defeat Labour but that it will take away enough votes from the party that the Conservatives are re-elected. The third reason for Corbyn is an unwillingness to be at odds with the party membership, his one reliable power-base.

Not every senior Corbynite found that conclusion easy to accept. Before the first set of indicative votes a group of 12 shadow cabinet ministers, including the impeccable loyalists Richard Burgon, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery, led a delegation to plead with the Labour leader not to back a second referendum. In the end, Corbyn convinced all but three: Trickett, Lavery and Andrew Gwynne, the shadow secretary of state for local government – all of whom abstained. Some pro-Remain Labour MPs are convinced that had Corbyn been willing to sack rebellious frontbenchers, a second vote would have been able to pass the Commons. The idea is superficially tempting but untrue. One of the rebellious ministers had already informed his staff that they would need to seek new employment as they expected to be sacked, while Lavery had written a resignation letter, which he carried around with him for the rest of the evening of 27 March, convinced that he would be required to hand it to Corbyn. As one junior shadow minister put it to me, “people seem to forget this isn’t a paid job. It’s extra work and I’m not going to put keeping it ahead of keeping my seat.”

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It wasn’t only Labour that compromised. Westminster’s third party, the SNP, also put its political interests aside to vote for Beckett’s amendment, the terms of which are the cause of some anxiety among its parliamentarians at both Westminster and Holyrood. The source of their unease is the argument made by Beckett and other Labour MPs that the final Brexit deal should be subject to a confirmatory vote from the British people. This, they believe, is an argument that could be deployed in the event of a successful vote for Scottish independence. A second referendum on the grounds that there is disagreement with the outcome of the first is one thing; a vote based on the argument that the result of the last one must be subject to further confirmation is quite another. In the end, the decision attracted the SNP’s first ever parliamentary rebellion at Westminster, with two MPs – Pete Wishart and Angus MacNeil – both opting to abstain instead of following the whip to back the Beckett amendment.

A week later the SNP, and Labour, went further still, backing the Common Market 2.0 set of proposals. For Labour, that means accepting the free movement of people will continue after Brexit, a concession that particularly unsettles many Labour MPs in the Midlands. For the SNP, it meant risking the end of two powerful arguments in the battle for Scottish independence.

The first argument is that by voting against any form of Brexit, the SNP can say that Brexit is a political folly made in England and inflicted on Scotland against its will. This is a state of affairs that not only bolsters the long-term argument for independence but the short-term one that the question must be re-opened in the present day. Others feared that, had the Common Market 2.0 proposal passed, it would have been a huge demonstration of the influence that SNP MPs can wield at Westminster – a poor advertisement for the party’s project.

But, in the end, both parties ended up at a compromise position. The SNP opted not to back membership of the customs union because it falls far short of Scotland’s economic requirements, and Labour refrained from supporting the cross-party amendment laid down by the SNP’s Brexit and justice lead, Joanna Cherry, as they feared it would place further strain on the nerves of Labour MPs in heavily pro-Brexit areas.

The passion for compromise doesn’t extend so far as the two UK-wide anti-Brexit parties, the Liberal Democrats and Change UK. For the former, its long-standing opposition to Brexit is one of the few things most voters know about the party. Those familiar with Vince Cable, and his thinking on Brexit, say it is a simple question of brand as well as of values: how could a party that already has a reputation for going back on its word risk confirming that voters’ worst fears about the party are true?

But other Liberal Democrats say that more cynical concerns are at play, noting that the only MPs to vote consistently for compromise were Tim Farron and Norman Lamb, whom Farron defeated in the party’s 2015 leadership contest. One grandee told me that Jo Swinson and Ed Davey’s decision to vote against soft Brexit measures had little to do with the strategic calculations of the party’s leadership and everything to do with winning the race for Cable’s job.

Change UK is a new party without a reputation to defend but its hopes rest on two things. The first is being seen as the natural home for committed Remainers, and the second is reaching an accord with the Liberal Democrats, so that the two parties do not end up competing on the same turf. As the Lib Dems’ internal structures are ultra-democratic and their members are sovereign, they, too, must stick to an anti-Brexit line at all times.

Despite initial hostility on both sides – several members of Change UK originally argued that Liberal Democrat MPs needed to abandon their party and write it off for dead rather than seek some kind of alliance – the two parties are well on their way to finding a way to work together. A small delegation of Liberal Democrats attended a recent public meeting in the constituency of Heidi Allen, Change UK’s interim leader.

The price for securing the support of all 22 Change UK and Liberal Democrat MPs is clear: a second vote on whether the United Kingdom should be inside or outside the European Union. Although that would, in theory, secure enough support to pass the House of Commons, none of the other Brexit options can pass without the support of MPs who are strongly opposed to a second referendum.

In any case, the intransigence of Change UK and some Liberal Democrats is at best a secondary issue as far as the Brexit deadlock is concerned. The bigger problem is that while Labour and the SNP have compromised, the government hasn’t. Behind the scenes, government whips worked to encourage Conservative MPs to sit out the indicative votes process.

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It underlines the central problem. There is no way out of the Brexit deadlock that can command both a majority of Conservative MPs and a majority in parliament. The usual resolution to a stand-off between parliament and the executive is a general election to redress the balance between the two. But there is no appetite for an election because Tory MPs fear that the contest would be a disaster that would usher in a Corbyn-led Labour government.

The other resolution would be a second referendum, which MPs across the two major parties fear would deal them an electoral hammer blow. So what’s left if parliament can’t pass anything and there is no appetite to go to the country again?

That’s the secret behind Theresa May’s new gambit: an offer to work with Jeremy Corbyn to set the terms of Brexit and the future relationship with the EU. It’s the only way around the two things that Conservative MPs don’t want.

But there’s a problem: sincerely accepting Corbyn’s terms on Brexit also means backing a resolution to the stand-off that MPs don’t want either. Conservative MPs may yet be forced to decide which of a second referendum, another general election or a soft Brexit they are keenest to avoid.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 05 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers