After months of exhaustive negotiations, the government has finally agreed on and outlined the terms of withdrawal from the European Union. Theresa May, facing tight parliamentary arithmetic and squeezed between incompatible desires of the right and moderate wings of her own party, is set to finally put her proposed withdrawal agreement to parliament for a ‘meaningful vote’ on Brexit.
The question now is, can it pass the commons?
In the days surrounding the publication of May’s Brexit deal the response was almost universally critical. The government outright failed to balance the discussion of the deal with positive voices in mainstream media coverage.
However, in recent days the seemingly blanket negativity towards the deal has begun to subside, boosting the spirits of the government. High-profile remainer Tories, such as Ken Clarke, have expressed reluctant support for the deal – eroding the opposition of one small but key parliamentary grouping.
Beyond parliament, business groups like the CBI have also expressed support for May’s deal – presumably due to fear of a no-deal alternative to EU withdrawal.
However, despite these reluctant concessions the challenge facing May and the whips’ office is still immense.
In order to pass the agreement through parliament, May remains critically short of the necessary support.
The most obvious issue for May is the vocal opposition of many hard-Brexiteer ERG (European Research Group) members; several of whom quickly resigned as ministers once the proposed deal became public.
High-profile Brexiteers, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker have publicly opposed the deal and submitted no-confidence votes in the Prime Minister. While the ERG numbers around 80 MPs only 26 MPs have publicly submitted letters of no-confidence to the Conservative Party chairman (48 are required to instigate a confidence vote).
This strategy has backfired for ERG leaders, as they remain short of the 48 letters, despite numerous from the government and widespread resentment about the proposed deal.
Questions must be asked about the ability of ERG leaders to lead impactful parliamentary opposition to the deal if they cannot even muster 48 of their own to challenge the Prime Minister.
The problem for May is that the public opposition of 26 MPs is, as it stands, enough to sink her deal. While this is not absolute confirmation that this core grouping of Brexiteers will vote against the deal, it is incredibly hard to see how those who have been so scathing about the proposal could justify a change of mind before the vote.
The DUP have similarly been highly critical of the deal due to the proposed arrangements for Northern Ireland.
10 MPs have supported the government for the past year through a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement after the loss of the Conservative majority in 2017.
In recent days the DUP have abstained on key votes for the government’s finance bill – a potential sign of the party flexing its muscles before voting against the government on the final Brexit vote. The loss of these 10 crucial votes would be extremely difficult to recover from, although the party is by no means guaranteed to vote against the deal and could still potentially be won around.
The next problem is the Labour Party’s absolute opposition to the deal, which amounts to a thinly-veiled attempt to force a general election. The opposition of the Labour front-bench is an expected, but still important challenge to May’s bill. The slightly more unexpected aspect of the Labour Party’s opposition is that it is unified.
There are three core subsections of the Labour Party in relation to Brexit: Labour Brexiteers, hardcore remainers and Labour MPs in leave-voting marginal constituencies.
Of these three groupings, only the latter has remained ambiguous about their position on the deal.
Labour remainers have similarly been united in their opposition to the deal.
MPs like Chuka Umunna and Stephen Kinnock, who have long been thorns in the side of the Labour leadership, have expressed outright opposition to the deal and confirmed their intention to vote against it and not merely abstain.
Theresa’s only hope are Labour MPs who are concerned about their thin majorities in leave-supporting constituencies.
Caroline Flint and Gareth Snell are the two key examples to watch. Both have been ambiguous about their position on the matter, committing to neither supporting nor opposing the deal offered in fear of electoral reprisals.
So, with a deal so toxic that is done the unthinkable – uniting Jeremy Corbyn, Chukka Umanna and Jacob Rees-Mogg – how can it possibly be passed through the commons?
The answer is in the framing of the consequences.
Hard Brexiteers can be trusted to ultimately support leaving the EU in an unsatisfactory manner rather than risking continued membership. This is where the government can manipulate them, by playing up the prospect of continued membership of the European Union or a second referendum on the issue if the deal is voted down (as Amber Rudd has strategically suggested in recent days).
The problem here (there is always a problem) that floating the idea of continued membership of the European Union to dissuade Brexiteer opposition to the deal merely empowers key groups of remainers who want exactly that.
To obtain remainer support the government will have to play up the prospect of a no-deal scenario following a commons defeat – which is what ERG hard-Brexiteers would prefer.
May is then tasked with constructing an incredibly difficult narrative: Trying to convince two polar-opposite groups that voting against her deal could potentially lead to continued EU membership and a no deal scenario.
Not committing to either scenario in order to avoid alienating either group leaves both with the impression they can achieve what they want and is unlikely to muster the necessary support from either side.
With all this in mind, the prospect of success in the commons is looking incredibly slim for May.
Almost all of the key parliamentary groupings required for successful passage have expressed strong opposition to the proposal, and the European Union has shown reluctance to renegotiate any key aspect of the deal.
With such polarised and varied desires for the future relationship with the European Union, the government will need a miracle to reach the threshold for a majority. The DUPs 10 votes alone could be enough to sink the deal – assuming opposition parties remain relatively united.
Even if May does regain support in Northern Ireland the votes of the 26 ERG members who have publicly called for her resignation would also most-likely defeat her deal, and this is working under the assumption pro-EU Tories can be won round to the proposal.
But in politics nothing is certain, and this is a Prime Minister who has survived more crises than I care to remember. However, the sheer scale of the challenge facing the Prime Minister – and the incredibly short time-frame to change minds – means this could finally be a defeat she can’t escape.
Likely to Oppose:
Hard-core of the European Research Group
Democratic Unionist Party
Moderate Labour MPs
Smaller Opposition Parties
Likely to Support:
Moderate Tory MPs
Less-committed ERG members.
Vulnerable Labour MPs in leave-supporting seats