by Paul Goodman
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I asked recently whether Labour will join with Conservative Euro-sceptics in the Commons to stop bailouts to EU countries. The question was based on newspaper reports claiming that Ed Balls is aiming to achieve this outcome. I have done a bit of work on the numbers, and present my conclusions below.
But first, a warning. Last December, 27 Conservative MPs backed an amendment from Douglas Carswell to the Loans to Ireland Bill to give Parliament the final say on the interest rate on the Irish loan. However, a vote on further bailouts may not take place at all.
This is because such bailouts would be supported partly by the European Financial Stability Mechanism, in which Britain participates. The EFSM is funded by the European Commission by borrowing from capital markets. British taxpayers stump up only in the event of defaults.
Further bailouts would thus not require a bill. Indeed, the Government presumably believes that they wouldn't require a vote at all (since Britain's participation in the EFSM is already a done deal, agreed by Alistair Darling during his last days as Chancellor).
However, some Euro-sceptic MPs would certainly argue otherwise. My view is that one can never be quite sure what will happen in Parliament – especially since the advent of the new backbench business committee, which provided the debates on which MPs voted on bailouts and votes for prisoners.
So, then: were there to be a further vote on bailouts, what would happen?
Worst case for the Government
30 Conservative MPs voted against the whip after the recent debate on bailouts. Labour have 254 MPs (excluding two deputy speakers who do not vote and one MP not currently in receipt of the party whip). Were Balls to persuade Miliband to throw his weight behind a tactical alliance with Conservative rebels on a bailout vote, that represents 284 votes.
The Conservatives have 305 MPs (excluding one deputy speaker who does not vote) and the Liberal Democrats have 57. Subtract 30 from the Tory total and the Government starts from a base of 332.
In this calculation, the Government thus starts with a majority of 48 over Labour. But during the recent bailout debate, Jeffrey Donaldson and Jim Shannon, two Democratic Unionist Party MPs, voted with the rebels. It's reasonable to assume that their six other colleagues are of similar mind, and thus to add eight votes to the Labour/Conservative rebel alliance. That leaves a Government majority of 40.
Assuming that no MPs from other parties join either the Government or this alliance, the Government would be defeated if 21 more Conservative MPs were to defy the whip and vote with Labour and the rebels. This is far from impossible, especially if a big media backlash begins against any bailouts – and likely defaults. (Remember: it's if – or when – defaults happen that the taxpayer becomes liable.)
Best case for the Government
This begins by probing the likelihood of all 254 Labour MPs joining Tory rebels in the lobbies. Balls's hints at such an alliance may be merely tactic – all talk and no delivery, designed merely to excite Tory Euro-sceptics and draw more into rebellion, in the hope that bailouts can be halted.
However, he may genuinely wish for such an alliance, but not command Miliband's support. The Labour leader will be mindful that the party has its own Euro-enthusiasts in substantial number – and that some of them might well be unwilling to vote in effect against the EU project, even to help defeat David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
But let's assume that all 254 Labour MPs voted with Tory rebels. Is it certain that the numbers of the latter would rise rather than fall? I don't think so. One senior MP who voted against bailouts recently has told me that he did so to express a view, confident that the Government would win. He added that he wouldn't vote against the Government to help defeat it, hoping that it would lose.
Furthermore, Hywel Williams, a Plaid Cymru MP, supported the Government on the last bailout vote. So one should add its other two MPs to the pro-Government total, in the same way as the DUP's eight votes were counted against it. That leaves a Government majority of 43.
I haven't counted the SNP, SDLP, Alliance, Independent Labour, Independent Unionist and Green MPs in either total. One could add other permutations – questioning, for example, whether all 57 Liberal Democrat MPs would really support a bailout.
A Government majority of 43 on this issue is less solid than it may look. But a Government defeat assumes 254 Labour votes against Euro-orthodoxy, and a net rise in the Tory rebellion of 22. That's far from impossible, as I say. But as matters stand today, I think it's unlikely.