by Atul Hatwal
We live in a political world of dominoes (dominoes? millennials – look it up). The first of a line fell last night that could have profound consequences for politics in the next 12 months.
The government was forced to accept a Labour motion calling for greater parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit. The original government whipping was to oppose but was reversed at the last minute with the submission of a bland government amendment to the motion’s wording, enabling Tory MPs to back it.
The minutiae of the motion doesn’t matter, it’s the government U-turn that counts. This tells us three things.
First, there are sufficient Tory rebels – an alliance of Remainers and liberal Leavers – who will vote against the government on Brexit issues. As Theresa May well knows, the first step is the demand for greater parliamentary scrutiny, swiftly followed by calls for a vote on the final terms.
No matter what the press or hard Brexiteers say, this vote is now likely on the same basis as last night’s retreat – MPs will cite the importance of parliamentary sovereignty and the government will be defeated on an opposition motion or amendment to a Bill promising this vote, unless it gives in.
Second, the same parliamentary arithmetic that drives the scrutiny and vote means that hard Brexit will be very difficult to pass. There are approximately 80 committed Tory hard Brexiteers but virtually all of Labour, Lib Dem, SNP, DUP and Plaid combined with high double digits of Tory MPs would not vote for it. No amount of whipping can overturn this majority.
Third, the likelihood of Theresa May’s relatively hard Brexit policy being rewritten by the House means she faces a choice: have the centre-piece of her policy platform – the terms of Brexit – defined by the legislature rather than her executive, or go to the country.
She might be genuinely committed to avoiding an early election but if she wants to get her way on Brexit she will need a bigger majority – one that can only be guaranteed if she faces Jeremy Corbyn in a poll.
The Labour leader might have recently won this year’s leadership contest but many in parliament expect that he will be gone by 2020. Even Corbynite MPs are looking to 2018 as a date when Corbyn will stand down and handover the torch to someone like John McDonnell (assuming the hard left have reduced the nomination threshold among MPs, for leader, by then).
Theresa May has a limited window when she can be sure that Jeremy Corbyn will be her opponent, ensuring she boosts her majority. On current trends, anywhere from 50 to 80 Labour MPs could expect to lose their seats, though among Labour’s MPs there are even more apocalyptic scenarios with losses in triple digits.
Over the coming weeks, Theresa May is going to realise the limits of her Commons authority. At that point she could easily conclude that U-turning on an early general election is less damaging for her than U-turning on her Brexit policy.
May 2017 anyone?
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut