It is beguilingly easy to be drawn into treating Project Fear Two, in full flight yesterday with the Treasury and the Bank of England’s economic projections, as though they were being published in the same context as those that were during Project Fear One. But there is a difference. Last time round, the audience was roughly 35 million potential voters. This time, it is a mere 650 of them – members of Parliament. These are relatively unlikely to be swayed by the claims and counter-claims one way or another.
In an important sense, therefore, the Government’s campaign grid is a distraction – misdirection, to draw an analogy with magicians’ stagecraft. While Leavers, Remainers and others point to and shout at Theresa May, Philip Hammond, Mark Carney and so on, the real action is quietly taking place elsewhere.
For many, perhaps most, Tory MPs, arguments about Brexit itself will not be decisive when they file through the lobbies on December 11. What will count at least as much is a jumble of the following: party unity, Association opinion, personal ambition, domestic circumstances (never underestimate the impact of the views of spouses or partners), and, above all, the implications of the vote, and its aftermath, for their seats at the next election. While Ben Wallace takes centre-stage at the circus today, the whips will be whispering away to their charges in the stalls.
They, Downing Street and the Treasury have reason not to be put out by claims that roughly 100 Conservative MPs will oppose Theresa May when the “meaningful vote’ comes, and that the Government could lose it by 200. On the one hand, it is true that revolt breeds more revolt, that there is safety in numbers, and that wavering Tory backbenches may feel that the reported growing number of rebels gives them cover to oppose the deal. On the other, it is worth peering a bit more closely at the figures.
The present estimates tend to lump together MPs who originally went public to oppose Chequers, say, and those who have made a specific commitment to vote against the deal. The figure of 100 dissidents, having been reported, then tends to be re-reported – and, as is the way with these things, gain a life of its own. But are these caculations reliable? Some of the original “Stand Up for Brexit” supporters, for example, signed up to oppose the Chequers plans during the summer. However, to commit to standing up for Brexit – for example, by opposing those plans – isn’t exactly the same as committing to oppose the deal.
Our test is a simple one. Have the MPs concerned pledged specifically to vote against the plan? (Saying one doesn’t support it isn’t quite the same thing: any MP who uses that form of words might abstain instead.) If an MP says he will oppose it “as it stands”, can that be counted as a firm commitment? Be ready for some trade either way. Some MPs who have not yet come out against May’s plans will do so. Others who have done so will resile, calculating that an about turn will have little impact in Chuffnell Poges or Sin City South-West or wherever their seat happens to be.
We will be producing our own estimate shortly. In the meantime, ponder the possible consequences of an expectation that the Government will lose the meaningful vote by 200…and it actually losing it by, say, 50. Disaster would suddenly be spun as triumph.
So were we Downing Street, we might not be displeased by those present reports about the numbers. They might make preparing for a second vote a bit easier – potentially useful, given the daunting position for the Prime Minister on a first one. Hints at honours, pledges of promotion, help with a constituency by-pass or new hospital wing: all these will be deployed. Plus fear of Jeremy Corbyn and a general election – Fixed Terms Act or no. There is the best part of a fortnight to go before the vote on December 11.