What Kate Hoey's retirement doesn't mean for Brexit

The Vauxhall MP has become the fourth Labour Leaver to announce her retirement. 

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With this evening’s deadline for Labour MPs to confirm they wish to seek reselection as candidates looming, Kate Hoey has become the fourth of the PLP’s Leavers to announce they will not stand at the next general election. 

The Vauxhall MP’s departure from the Commons at the end of this parliament, voluntary or otherwise, had looked inevitable since June 2017. Hoey is, by some distance, the hardest and most ideological of the Brexiteers on the Labour benches, not to mention the most vocal. That stance, and the unapologetic gusto with which it is frequently taken, has put her at odds not only with her Remain-voting constituency but also with her local party, who passed a motion of censure against her last July - a precursor to the full selection process she has chosen not to undergo. More prosaically, friends of the former minister have long pointed to her age - she turned 73 last month - when asked about her future.

Hoey joins Kevin Barron, the MP for Rother Valley; Ronnie Campbell, the MP for Blyth Valley; and Jim Fitzpatrick, the MP for Poplar and Limehouse, in stepping down from the Commons. All four, to one degree or another, fall into the broad category of Labour Leavers. Barron and Fitzpatrick both voted to Remain in 2016, but have since become advocates for a negotiated exit. Both voted for Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement: Barron three times, Fitzpatrick once. Campbell, meanwhile, is a Bennite Eurosceptic of long vintage. Despite his ideological sympathies he largely followed the Labour whip throughout the Brexit process, before abstaining on the third meaningful vote. Hoey, meanwhile, has only ever voted against the withdrawal agreement, and, like Campbell, voted in favour of no-deal in March’s set of indicative votes.

In Hoey and Fitzpatrick’s cases, the discussion has now turned to who might replace them: both represent plum inner London seats with elephantine Labour majorities. It is fair to assume, in Vauxhall and Poplar at least, that the retiring Leavers will be replaced by candidates who take the opposite view to the incumbents on Brexit. The politics of Barron and Campbell's seats are quite different: there a majority of voters backed Brexit at the last election, and the Labour majorities are on a downward trajectory. Even so, their successors are unlikely to behave identically and it is almost certain that the Parliamentary Labour Party elected in 2022 or November 2019 will be of a more pro-Remain complexion than that elected in 2017. 

Yet it is the consequences for this parliament, rather than the next one, that could be much more profound. Hard Brexiteers on the Conservative benches have been delighted by these four retirements. They are less occupied by the fact that, ultimately, there could be four fewer votes for Brexit after a general election than by a more optimistic perspective. They believe that, now liberated from the demands of the Labour whip or their constituency parties, all four can be counted on to vote for the Brexit outcome they actually want without fear of internal retribution. 

But while it is true that MPs who know they are on the way out tend to have a more selective relationship with party discipline, that is precisely why three of the four Leavers who have announced their intention to retire - Fitzpatrick, Campbell and Barron - have already voted for a deal. It’s also why Hoey has seen fit to act in the way she has: knowing you are retiring is effectively a sort of impunity. As far as the strategic aims of Tory Brexiteers are concerned, the retirements change nothing: Hoey and Campbell were willing to defy the Labour whip to vote for a no-deal Brexit before they announced their retirement, and ditto Barron and Fitzpatrick when it came to the withdrawal agreement. 

Much more likely to change the Commons arithmetic in favour of a negotiated Brexit are the selection processes for those MPs who intend to stay on. Several, including Gareth Snell, Lisa Nandy and Stephen Kinnock, have said they now wish to vote for something that looks like the withdrawal agreement. Once others know they are safe - or not - they will be liberated to break cover and do so. Providing, of course, there ends up being a palatable deal to vote for. Under Boris Johnson, that will be far from a given.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.