Dear Prime Minister,

Brexit policy options

This is a brief note about Brexit policy options in the wake of your statement to the Commons yesterday on leaving the European Union.

Review of your statement

Yesterday went off as well as could reasonably be expected.  The morning’s Cabinet meeting was obviously highly charged, but as anticipated no member resigned.  Your Commons statement was challenging to manage, but our backbenches received it more calmly than some feared.  Our revised approach appears to have achieved one of its main aims – namely, to remove the threat of Ministers voting against Government policy for the Letwin/Cooper amendment, since it seems now unlikely to be voted on today.  The Brexit Secretary must seek to ensure that this outcome achieved during today’s debate.

Pro-extension Ministers and the European Research Group

To understand why yesterday was relatively successful, we must turn to the positions of two groups of colleagues – pro-extension Ministers and the European Research Group (ERG).

Pro-extension Ministers and other colleagues achieved their aim and were therefore satisfied.  Obviously, they will continue to seek to “take no deal off the table”, first, in the event of the Commons not approving the improved deal which the Government aims to put to them and then, second, in the event of it voting for an extension.

As you know, I believe that no deal presents very considerable obstacles, and therefore have some sympathy for these Ministers’ position, and take the view that their behaviour has not been unhelpful in all respects.  However, it cannot be denied that their conduct has been uncollegiate and not conducive to orderly business.  You will want to weigh up the balance in any future restructuring of the Government.

The ERG and other pro-Brexit colleagues who are prepared to tolerate no deal at the least are taking a more complex approach.  They recognise that the House is unlikely to vote for no deal – that it has voted against it twice previously suggests such an outcome – and likely to vote for extension (in the event of the Commons not approving an improved deal).

They therefore appear to have decided to concentrate their fire on the meaningful vote which the Government has now committed to put to the House by March 13.  There are different views of the effect of yesterday’s announcement on this group.  One is that since the deadline of March 29 is now not absolute, the ERG has less incentive to vote for the deal.  Another is that March 13 presents the group with a new deadline, and thus gives it more incentive to vote for the improved deal which the Government is now committed to put to the House by March 12.

I take the latter view, but can see that the matter is debatable.

An improved deal and the run-up to March 12

Obviously, you will wish to see an improved deal approved by the Commons by March 12 at the latest – followed by a vote in the House to approve a short technical extension to ensure that there is time to pass the consequent legislation.  Votes on no deal and extension on March 13 are not desirable.

The sooner such a deal can be put to the Commons the better, since further delay is not helpful to the Government’s authority.  But the priority must be to get it right rather than do it quick.  Discussions between the EU side and the UK side, in which the Attorney-General now plays a leading role, continue.

The options in relation to the backstop range, at one end, from a simple declaration that he has now changed his mind on its legal effects to, at the other, a change in the review clause – perhaps through the insertion of a sunset clause – through other options such as a protocol or an interpretive instrument or a council declaration.

This note takes no view on the relative desirability of these options, but the politics of ensuring that an improved deal passes the Commons must be roughly as follows.

  • The key is first to gain the DUP’s formal support for one.  The role of Ministers who have a good working relationship with them will be important.  The Environment Secretary and the Defence Secretary among others have spoken at DUP events in Northern Ireland.  The latter played an important part in drawing up our mutual confidence and supply arrangement.
  • As you know, the ERG is divided over an improved deal.  Some of its members are willing to support such a deal in the event of changes to the backstop.  Others are effectively opposed to a deal, and favour a no deal Brexit.  Many of the former are likely to follow the lead of the DUP, on the rough ground that one should not be more royal than the king.  Which is why this note stresses the primary role of the DUP.  It will also be important to pay due attention to the Malthouse Compromise in relation to the Political Declaration.
  • Finally, the role of opposition MPs is likely to be crucial.  We must presume that Labour’s front bench will oppose whatever we put before the House.  However, there are now eleven members of the Independent Group; nine other independent MPs, and roughly 15 Labour MPs who have recently voted with the Government on crucial Brexit-related votes.

All in all, the arithmetic of the meaningful vote suggests a trade-off between some No Deal and Second Referendum-supporting colleagues not supporting an improved deal, and some opposition MPs, including perhaps the Liberal Democrats, doing so.

The question is whether the pool of roughly 30 potentially sympathetic opposition MPs will be larger than the pool of unsupportive colleagues.  We await further advice from the Chief Whip.

If the improved deal is rejected and there are votes on March 13

As noted above, the House is unlikely to vote for No Deal and likely to vote for extension.  Again, you will want further discussions with the Chief Whip and other senior colleagues on the potential handling of such votes should they arise.  There is clearly a case for arguing in this eventuality that, the improved deal having been rejected, the House must now take a view on the best way forward, and that free votes are appropriate under these circumstances.  The trade-off here is the potential loss of authority against the pragmatic handling of colleagues – since pro-extension Ministers would presumably vote for extension in any event.

What extension if any the EU would be willing to accept is beyond the scope of this note, but I understand that private commitments have been given in this regard.  The ERG and its allies will want the shortest possible extension.  Most pro-extension Ministers will want a longer one, since they tend to favour a Norway Plus or Second Referendum solution.

In the event of an extension under these circumstances, the Government’s aim should clearly be to negotiate a further improved deal which the Commons will pass.

The most practicable course would be to aim for a short extension that ends before UK participation in the late May European Parliamentary elections would be due to kick in.  This would be likely to keep the ERG onside while not putting pro-extension Ministers offside.

This is because, in the event of difficulty with a further improved deal, the Letwin-Cooper plan, or a variant of it, would doubtless be revived in the run-up to mid-May.  Pro-extension Ministers and other Ministers would presumably then threaten to vote for it.  We would once again face the dispute about taking no deal off the table.  Pro-extension Ministers would presumably believe that at this point the Government would allow the House to vote in favour of a further extension.  Which is why they would be unlikely vigorously to oppose a short one at an earlier point.  But I appreciate that the interplay between domestic politics and EU decisions at this point would be complex.

In the undesirable event of an extension that is other than technical, the passing of a further improved deal is the optimal outcome.  If agreeing or passing one becomes impossible, it might be necessary to consider holding a series of indicative votes, as raised yesterday, and also with you previously by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and others.

A general election?

Finally, this note looks ahead in the event of the Commons approving an improved deal by March 12, followed by a vote in the House to approve a short technical extension to ensure that there is time to pass the consequent legislation.

As previously discussed, a snap election subsequently should not be ruled out – notwithstanding potential difficulties with colleagues and the Fixed Terms Parliament Act; and other practical problems in relation to a manifesto and a campaign.

There are three main reasons why a snap poll in these circumstances would be desirable.  And of course you have been careful not to rule out leading the Party into a general election before 2022.

First, present evidence suggests that the emergence of the Independent Group will cause Labour more problems than it will cause the Party.  Our private polling shows that our present chances of winning a workable majority in a snap election have increased.

Second, such a majority, won on the basis of a new manifesto, would advance our Brexit policy further.  In particular, it would offer the chance to revive the approach agreed last summer at Chequers.

Third, a majority would transform the broader political situation, and offer the opportunity to revive your mission to tackle “burning injustices”.  In these circumstances, your commitment not to lead the Party into a 2022 election would become otioise.

There would be no intrinsic reason why you should not seek to lead it into a poll in 2023, and in the event of an election win this year a substantial Cabinet reshuffle, in which loyalty would be especially prized, would naturally follow.

Olly Robbins has seen the non-party political aspects of this note.



Gavin Barwell, Chief of Staff