Chris White was Special Adviser to Patrick McLoughlin, when the latter served as Chief Whip, as well as to Andrew Lansley and William Hague when each served as Leader of the House. He is now Managing Director of Newington Communications.
The Brexit Party has Annunziata Rees-Mogg, The Independent Group/Change UK/The Remain Alliance has Rachel Johnson – it’s a family affair, but not as we know it. As the parties unveil their candidates for the elections that few thought we would have – and quite a few would rather we didn’t – Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party looks set to get more votes than any other single party.
However, Theresa May seemingly still believes that the EU elections, and the bizarre spectacle of electing MEPs for six months before leaving, can be avoided. She will be hoping that MPs will also want to avoid this at any cost, and indicated the timescale she is working to when, announcing the six month extension to the Commons, she said: “if we were able to pass a deal by 22 May, we would not have to take part in European elections.” The EU would then have to ratify this change before 31st May, allowing the UK to leave with a deal.
How could this be done?
There are now just 28 days before European election day, so clearly any attempt to get the deal through will require the Government to act fast.
Remember that the Speaker of the Commons has ruled out the Government asking the House the same question twice. So the Prime Minister cannot simply put the Withdrawal Agreement forward for another vote. If the Government wants another go, it would have to use legislation.
Inserting the Withdrawal Agreement into legislation, and removing the provision for another vote on both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration, would get round the Speaker’s ruling. Technically, it’s possible to get legislation through the Commons at high speed – just look at the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019 – known to everyone as the Cooper-Letwin Bill. It was introduced on April 2ns, and received Royal Assent on April 8th.
With the agreement of the Opposition to crash ‘minimum intervals’ in the Lords, and scheduling in the Commons speeded up, it is technically possible…
…However, as with all technical possibilities, the problem comes with the political realities.
Putting it bluntly, the Government lost the last vote on the Withdrawal Agreement by a majority of 58. Since then, Conservative MPs seem, if anything, to have hardened their attitude towards the Prime Minister. Moves are afoot to change the rules to allow a leadership challenge after six months, instead of a year.
It is also critically important to remember that the Government wouldn’t have to win just one vote in the Commons using this method – it would have to pass all stages in both Houses in less than a month. That’s between 50 and a hundred votes in the Commons and the Lords for the Government to have in which to create and sustain a majority.
Crystal ball gazing – what next?
1) The Government goes ahead and loses
If the Government brings forward the Bill and loses a vote on Second Reading, then there is no other way for it to bring forward a fifth vote in this Parliamentary session. That would inevitably mean ending the session and introducing a new Queen’s Speech.
Such a programme would inevitably be thin, and closing the session would also trigger the end of the confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP, which would have to be renegotiated. Even if the Conservatives did manage to renegotiate that, and achieve a working majority of just five, all it would take is for just three Tory MPs to vote against the Queen’s Speech – and the Government could not get its legislative programme through.
A no-confidence vote would follow, though I’d expect the Government to win this, as neither the DUP not TIG/Change UK MPs want an election. We’d then be in the frankly bizarre situation of a Government unable to bring forward any legislation, but winning votes of no-confidence and refusing to resign.
2) The Government waits until after European Elections
It may be that in the cold, hard light of day, the Government decides not to put the Bill forward for debate. And that, instead, it waits until after May 23rd, when Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is likely to win the European elections with a vote share of around 30 per cent. With a reasonable showing for UKIP as well (10-15 per cent), the Prime Minister may feel that such a result will be enough to scare Labour MPs in Leave-voting areas to back the deal if it is brought back.
3) The Government re-heats the Malthouse Compromise
At the request of some Conservative MPs and under intense pressure, the May has reportedly asked officials to try again with Brussels on the Malthouse Compromise. Expect Brussels to say a firm ‘non’…
The Government’s talks with Labour aren’t going anywhere, so could a run-off vote be used?
Yesterday saw another day pass without the Government and Labour coming to an agreement. Steve Barclay, David Lidington and Gavin Barwell, met with Keir Starmer and other Labour figures, the outcome of which was described by the Government as ‘disappointing’ and by the Opposition as the Prime Minister trying to ‘regurgitate failed plans’.
If no common ground can be found, it has been suggested that she might sign up to a ‘winner-takes-all’ vote in the Commons, whereby a succession of votes are held by which the option with the least votes is ruled out – much like the run-offs amongst MPs for the Conservative leadership ballots. Such a run-off vote could also be held by means of a single-transferable vote system, with each MP ranking his or her preferred options.
This would huge challenges. First, such motions would be non-binding. Secondly, they would be very unlikely to produce a stable majority to support the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement in legislation.
What about our “alternative Prime Minister? Or emergency debates to find a solution?
It is remarkable how silent the Member for West Dorset (Oliver Letwin) has been in the last two weeks since the failure of the House to vote for further indicative votes as part of the consideration of the Cooper-Letwin Bill (recall that the Speaker cast his deciding vote in the tie against further debate). The Commons clearly couldn’t agree on a single option, so we wait and see if further attempts will be made to capture days.
The Speaker has also suggested that the House could use the emergency debates procedure under Standing Order 24 for amendable motions in another ‘novel’ interpretation of procedure.
Unfortunately, my crystal ball, at this point, clouds over somewhat. My best guess is that the Prime Minister won’t try and bring forward a further vote on its deal before the European Elections, despite pressure from some Cabinet members to do so. and will think about trying in the immediate aftermath.
Whilst all this goes on, constituency Chairmen, activists and MPs will be calling for the rules to be changed so that there can be a further vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister, citing May as the blockage to a deal.
Yet the arithmetic in the House would remain the same in the event of a leadership election. MPs will not allow the Government to leave without a deal, the EU will not allow the backstop to change, and a new Conservative leader would therefore face the same challenge in uniting the party behind a deal that the EU agrees to. There is no silver bullet – only a weary realisation that at some point, someone will have to compromise. The problem is that everyone thinks it is going to be someone else who blinks first.