A house divided against itself – Brexit factions in Westminster

It has become apparent that Westminster is deadlocked with regards how to proceed with the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. Theresa May had intended to receive “clarification” from the European Union on the proposed Withdrawal Agreement, but the EU have made it clear that no re-negotiation will be forthcoming. Assuming nothing dramatic happens between now and the vote, it is virtually certain that the government will face a heavy defeat.

To illustrate the difficulty faced in getting parliament to approve any next course of action, I created a model to assign each of Westminster’s 650 MPs into a faction, based on their voting record, membership of groups such as the Tory Eurosceptic ERG, and their stated intentions on issues such as the Prime Minister’s deal and the possibility of a second referendum. The various factions can be broken down as per the graphic above (the detail of each faction can be found in a spreadsheet here).

The largest groupings in the Commons are the Tory Brexiter group and the Labour Frontbench & Whips groups, which have 97 MPs each. In order to command a majority in the Commons, any proposed course of action needs to receive 320 votes, as neither the abstentionist Sinn Féin, the Speaker, nor the three Deputy Speakers vote.

These groupings can be grouped further into six parliamentary blocs:

  • Brexiters (112 MPs)
  • Government & Tory Loyalists (157)
  • “Swing votes”, comprising non-hardline Brexit supporting Labour MPs, and Tory MPs that are undecided on the Prime Minister’s deal (49)
  • Opposition & Labour Loyalists (164)
  • Tories who backed the Grieve amendment, making Brexit legislation amendable (24)
  • Remainers (133)

Excluding MPs who don’t vote, the strength of each bloc can be shown in the following chart.

The difficulty for any proposal to achieve the magic number of 320 is apparent. Given the impossibility of uniting the Brexiter and Remainer blocs, there are essentially only three paths for any proposal to get through parliament.

The Brexiter path to the Withdrawal Agreement or No Deal

Presumably what the government had in mind when the deal was first proposed. A combination of the government, Conservative loyalists, Tory Brexiters, the DUP and opposition MPs with Brexit sympathies would bring the government 318 votes. Even were the government somehow able to bring together such a fractious coalition, it wouldn’t be quite enough, as it would also need to secure a couple of votes from the group of Tory MPs who backed the Grieve amendment. Passing the Withdrawal Agreement through this path seems virtually impossible.

Were the government try to whip through a No Deal Brexit they could conceivably get closer to a majority than they would trying to get the Withdrawal Agreement through, but there seems to be no viable path to 320 given the virtual certainty of resignations from some of the 11 or so Remainers in the Cabinet and likely amongst other government payroll MPs.

The Remainer path to a Second Referendum or Article 50 Revocation

Any Remainer path through the Commons absolutely must be supported by Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour frontbench. This would both make it impossible for Labour to continue its strategic ambiguity on Brexit, and would run counter to the Brexiter inclinations of the Leader of the Opposition himself.

Labour’s position on Brexit could charitably be described as “confusing”. Corbyn supports membership of the customs union, but not the single market, on grounds that he disagrees with EU rules regarding state aid. This is despite the fact that membership of the customs union would entail following state aid rules and he can’t point to examples of where Labour’s plans would contravene the EU’s state aid rules. However, if Labour were to change their position, it would open up a Remainer path in the Commons.

A possibility is that, if the government decides to hold an up-or-down referendum on the Withdrawal Agreement (i.e. May’s deal or no deal), then this could be amended to include a Remain or Single Market option.

A coalition of Labour, the SNP, Plaid, the Green Party and the Tories who backed the Grieve amendment would comprise 321, barely above the 320 threshold needed. This would be extremely tight – they would only be able to afford to lose one of the Grieve amendment Tories unless they were able to win the support of soft Labour Brexiteers or independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon to make up for any losses.

The path to an outright revocation of Article 50 would require a similar path, but would be much more difficult due to the Brexiter inclinations of the Labour leadership and the greater difficulty in attracting Grieve amendment Tories to such a drastic course of action.

The Grand Coalition path to the Withdrawal Agreement

A “Grand Coalition” of MPs who are loyal to either the Labour frontbench or the government would notionally total 321 votes. Whilst fanciful sounding, Jeremy Corbyn has hinted that he may consider supporting the government on the Withdrawal Agreement if they were to agree to greater safeguards on workers’ rights and environmental protection.

If something like this was to be attempted, it would almost certainly lead to resignations from both frontbenches. It would be politically risky for both parties, too, giving rivals to attack the Tories (from the eurosceptic right) and Labour (from the Remainer left). Anything that would lead to the government watering down its so-called “red line” on freedom of movement would be very difficult for the Prime Minister to accept.

The finely balanced state of the Brexit blocs in the Commons means that any course through the Commons will have to go through one of the three paths. Other courses of action are possible. The inability of the Commons to agree anything before the 29th of March may lead to the UK leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement, or the government may use prerogative powers to attempt to extend or even revoke Article 50.

The government could even attempt to resolve the tangle by calling another general election. However, the polls suggest that there has been little change in support for any of the parties and a new parliament may end up being virtually identical to the present one.