Why Remainers should not be angry if Labour MPs vote with the government today

Opposition MPs might well vote with the government in today's first vote. The real question is whether Boris Johnson can hold onto them for the second.

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There are two Brexit votes today, but only one that matters.

The second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill looks likely to pass sometime in the evening thanks to rebellious Labour MPs. This is the vote that does not matter.

The WAB, as it is not so affectionately known, writes the government’s deal into British law. And it will live and die by today’s second vote — the vote that does matter. (Tomorrow’s amendments on a customs union could prove the next sticking point. But let’s leave tomorrow until tomorrow. There are enough hourly twists and turns to occupy us till then.)

Today’s second vote is a programme motion — basically an opportunity for MPs to stop the government from rushing through the deal. Enough independents and, crucially, the DUP seem to agree with the opposition that three days is not enough time to interrogate the WAB. In which case, folks, we could be heading for an extension.

However, there is a group of MPs for whom today’s first vote might matter more than initially appears: Labour rebels. Take, for example, the MP for Leave-voting Rotherham, Sarah Champion. In a letter to a constituent before not-so-Super Saturday, she indicated that she would vote with the government.

“The deal that Boris Johnson has struck is far from perfect. But we are faced with a choice between that deal and a catastrophic no-deal Brexit,” she wrote. “I can confirm that I will vote for the deal.”

Since today’s first vote does not matter, it could provide a fig leaf for a number of Labour MPs. When they are out on the doorsteps of their Leave-voting constituencies, they can legitimately say “I voted for Brexit”. It might even be a smart thing to do. After all, Sarah Champion has not yet voted for Brexit. Labour whips might offer clemency.

However, senior opposition figures will look unfavourably upon MPs that side with the government in today’s second vote. Voting for Brexit is one thing; voting for an immediate Brexit is another. All eyes should be trained on the programme motion — today’s second vote — and whether the government can hold on to its Labour rebels throughout the day.

George Grylls is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2019.