The government won on keeping no-deal Brexit an option – but tough times lie ahead

The whips on the attack, the furrowed brows, the familiar roster of senior MPs making the same Brexit speeches, variations on a similar theme, over and over again. Accompanied at the climax by the collective squeaky-bum-time of the crunch division of the chamber.

Yes, today’s vote on handing Labour control of the order paper on 25 June felt like, well, every day, of the first four months of this year.

Since Theresa May’s third and final attempt to get through her withdrawal agreement, the parliamentary battlefield, once so noisy, so littered with debris of a daily war of attrition, has been relatively quiet. After Mrs May’s resignation, the crosshair moved to the Tory leadership race and its multitude of contenders.

Yet today was a reminder that not all – not nearly anything close to being all – of the Tories’ problems lie at the prime minister’s feet.

The stasis, the repeated defeats, all flow from the immovable calculus of the numbers in parliament. They all flow from the fact that this government, unlike most governments, cannot guarantee its victory over anything on the floor of the Commons, however minor – let alone something as endlessly complex and controversial as Brexit.

It was a reminder that this hostile parliament, with its tightly balanced arithmetic, awaits whoever is (un)lucky enough to replace Mrs May.

There was huge concern on the Tory benches that the Commons would inflict yet another defeat. The prime minister and her whips, however, have squeaked out a final modest victory, a consolation prize, of sorts.

It means that the Labour Party will not control the order paper on 25 June; it means that parliament will not have the ability to take steps to interdict a no-deal Brexit on that date or, likely, before the summer recess.

The government will be delighted that it has (however gingerly) cemented the Conservatives’ hold on power; that they have shown that it can still (just about) command that most basic of functions of the executive: control of what the Commons’ does. Brexiters are pleased that their dream, their basic reflex of a no-deal Brexit remains alive.

But for how much longer? For if hard Brexiters believe that today’s vote shows there is no majority in parliament to stop a no-deal Brexit, they will come to be deeply disappointed. Many Conservative ministers, on the government’s payroll, would not support today’s motion because a) it is in the name of Jeremy Corbyn b) they don’t feel they need to – yet.

The lesson of the manifold votes from the first four months of the year is that Tory Remainer MPs will only move when they feel every option is exhausted. They will not vote against their own whip (and resign) until they absolutely have to. With the extension to October, that date has been long deferred.

However, if Boris Johnson wins, someone who is committed to a no-deal if necessary or even as a preference, should they press on, that date will certainly come; and when it does, many of those MPs who currently ministers and obliged to vote with the whip, may not be ministers any more and liberated to vote with their consciences.

But perhaps the greatest lesson of today is not so much about the Commons order paper but whether there will be an order paper for this particular House of Commons for much longer.

Watching the debate it was clear that there are several Conservative MPs, making the psychological steps towards the idea of voting against their own government in a motion of confidence.

Dominic Grieve spoke about his desire to tell his children and grandchildren he had done all he could to avert a no-deal Brexit, he spoke, for the first time of his willingness to resign the Conservative whip, if necessary.

He speaks not for many but for enough; the government’s hold over the Commons, even with their parliamentary allies the DUP is so feeble, that it would require only a mere handful (as few as two or three) Tories to cross the floor, join the opposition as independents and bring down the government.

It is cliche to say you can’t predict anything in politics any more but if I had to bet, I’d say that is where we are going – with an election, the third in four years, to follow.

The drama of the first four months of the year may be as nothing to the last.

2019-06-13T03:58:08+00:00By |

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