Our starting-point is the presumption that the Labour Party will be whipped to oppose any deal that the Prime Minister puts again before the Commons. This may not be right. It is just possible to believe that Jeremy Corbyn might instruct his party’s MPs to abstain, perhaps hoping that the deal will then pass against the wishes of the DUP, who in turn would then vote against the Government in a no-confidence vote.
But this sounds to us very unlikely, for three main reasons. First, the DUP might not be hostile to a revised deal, anyway. Second, they might not really vote to bring down the Government if push came to shove. Third, opposing the Government and seeking an election is what Corbyn does. His overtures to Downing Street are most likely a feint with impossibilist demands. And he would be joined in the lobbies in opposing any deal by the SNP and most of the minor parties.
This is why the emergence of the Independent Group looks like good news for Theresa May and her deal. It now has eight former Labour MPs as members, with the defection to it late yesterday of Joan Ryan. There are already eight other independent MPs, six of whom sat previously on Labour’s benches. Those 16 are a very mixed bag. Some are avid Remainers (consider Mike Gapes). Others are fervent Leavers (have a look at Frank Field). But they have a common starting-point: none are now under any obligation to the Labour Whip.
Not that all of the MPs who take that whip follow the party line on Brexit anyway. For example, seven of them voted for the Brady amendment. Seven others joined them to oppose the Cooper amendment. That’s a potential pool of 31 Labour and independent MPs for the Prime Minister to fish in. You will point out that the some Independent Group members have a record of support for a second referendum. Since that is so, why would they vote to support May’s deal, you will ask?
Furthermore, others tend to vote with Labour anyway, such as Jared O’Mara. None the less, the point holds: the more Labour MPs abandon the Labour whip, the bigger May’s window. At the level of low politics, the Government controls patronage, and there may be inducements to dangle before various independents. At the level of high ideals, it is not at all certain that the Independent Group would prefer the prospect of No Deal to May’s Deal if it came to the crunch.
The catch for the Prime Minister is that she may never get to a vote on her deal at all – or at least not before Oliver Letwin and his supporters have taken control of the Commons’ proceedings and timetable. Yvette Cooper’s bid to do last month fell by 298 votes to 321. It will brought back next Wednesday, when the House is due to cast a series of Brexit votes, in in form or another. One cannot write off the chances of it passing this time round.
Now as we say above 14 Labour MPs voted against the Cooper amendment in January. Another eleven were reported to have abstained, although counting absentions as deliberate is perilous: some of the MPs concerned may have been ill, others abroad, others absent for family reasons – whatever. However, the Conservative MPs will be starting with a figure of at least 25 Labour MPs having failed to support Cooper in the lobbies. Three of the three pre-Independent Group independents also opposed it.
None the less, the new group itself looks to do the Prime Minister no favours over Cooper. All eight of its members voted for her amendment. Any Conservative MPs who defect to join the group today, presumably pre-PMQs – Allen? Soubry? Wollaston – are also likely to have voted for the Cooper amendment. So maybe fixing one’s gaze on the Independent Group is, to lift a phrase from the first Indiana Jones film, like “digging in the wrong place”.
The more one thinks about it, the more one comes to think that the crucial voters next week may be not the Gang of Eight – or whatever that figure may be by the end of the day – but the Tory Remainers and Soft Brexiteers. Seventeen of them backed the Cooper amendment. Letwin, Dominic Grieve and company will presumably seek to persuade more to join them next week (and to keep hold of the ones they’ve got). Downing Street and the whips will be working to the opposite effect.
The key Conservatives are those Ministers who are threatening to resign: David Gauke, Amber Rudd, Greg Clark, Tobias Ellwood and – at the spectacularly detatched and relentless end of the spectrum – Richard Harrington. Number Ten will claim that it has made a real breakthrough on the backstop, that the deal is poised to pass, and that any Minister who quits will be throwing his career away for nothing. This is reported to be the position now taken by Philip Hammond.
A question then is whether Letwin and friends persist in arguing otherwise. At any rate, claims this morning that May now plans to rush a meaningful vote forward make sense – at least, as an option to be mulled during the next few days. She is off to Brussels today. One can see the plan: move quickly while Labour is splitting; get a quick gloss on the backstop; dangle the prospect of the Malthouse Compromise for the trade talks stage, get an end date for the backstop, square the ERG – and Bob’s your uncle; Theresa’s your aunt. The game’s afoot!