Parliamentary arithmetic moving against a no-deal Brexit

Now that the Christmas lull in the interminable Brexit wars is over, the various parliamentary factions are preparing to do battle once again as the 29th of March draws closer.

The first significant vote of 2019 is expected tomorrow, when parliament is scheduled to vote on Yvette Cooper’s amendment to the Finance Bill. The intended purpose of the amendment is to seek to prevent a no-deal Brexit by blocking tax powers if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, unless Article 50 is extended or MPs explicitly vote for a no-deal Brexit.

Opinion on whether this amendment would have a substantial impact seems split. However, barring any parliamentary chicanery (such as the government accepting the amendment), the vote should act as an opportunity for MPs to make their views known on the possibility of the UK leaving the EU without a deal ahead of the delayed vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, which at pixel time is scheduled for the 15th of January.

Since I last looked at the parliamentary arithmetic before Christmas, there have been some developments that have subtly moved the deadlocked House of Commons against a no-deal outcome. Possibly the most significant has been the publication of a letter, signed by over 200 MPs, urging the Prime Minister to rule out a no-deal.

There were a number of interesting signatories to this letter. On the Labour side of the house Caroline Flint, who is a high profile supporter of Labour adhering to the referendum result, was amongst the signatories. Frank Field, who was a longstanding Brexit supporting Labour MP until he resigned the Labour whip in August 2018, also signed the letter.

Also interesting was the fact that the Labour leadership allowed frontbench politicians to sign the letter, although Jeremy Corbyn did not sign the letter himself. Of the 96 members of the opposition frontbench or Labour whips, I was able to identify 43 signatories. Incidentally, I was only able to identify 185 signatories from the letter that was doing the rounds on social media despite there being apparently over 200 signatories, so I may have missed a few.

Possibly the most interesting were the Conservatives who signed the letter. Nine Tories signed the letter who had neither signed the Grieve amendment (making Brexit legislation amendable), nor backed the vote for the UK to remain the Single Market and Customs Union – three of whom are on the government payroll (Justin Tomlinson, Mark Pawsey and Oliver Letwin).

Excluding the three signatories who are on the government payroll, there are now 30 Tories who have rebelled against the government on Brexit or have publicly went on the record regarding their opposition to a no-deal Brexit. Combined with the vast majority of Labour votes and the votes of the remain supporting parties, there are around 330 anti no-deal votes (320 is needed for a majority), even before any potential resignations amongst the dozen or so remainers on the Tory frontbench or government payroll. An amended breakdown of the Westminster Brexit voting blocs can be seen in the chart below.

However, a no-deal Brexit is not like any of the other possible Brexit outcomes. By law, the UK will leave the EU without a deal on the 29th of March unless the House of Commons votes for another outcome. Any amount of solemnly worded motions opposing a no-deal Brexit will have no effect whatsoever; the house will have to actually vote for something else. There is no unilateral right to extend the Article 50 period, only to permanently revoke in order to remain in the EU. The EU are likely only to agree to an extension of the Article 50 period in order to facilitate another referendum, and only then if the British government were to campaign for a remain vote.

If tomorrow’s vote on the Cooper amendment goes ahead it should provide an opportunity for the various Brexit factions in Westminster to flex their muscles ahead of the more important votes to come. However, if the House of Commons is to succeed in its ambition to avoid a no-deal Brexit, simple opposition is not going to be enough.