Something's gotta give

2 March 2019

Oh to jettison the spreadsheets after those 6,500 data points sent the last blog so far apparently off piste. These were the figures arguing that May was obliged to tack to the ERG, whose discipline put her command of her party in question; that by comparison Corbyn’s control was looking good; and that any defections in prospect would count for nothing. Oh dear. The immediate consequence of the defections was to cause both leaders to reverse tack, with May sandbagged by the threat of Remainer resignations into supporting a motion entertaining delay to the Article 50 timetable; and Corbyn assenting through gritted teeth to the principle of a second referendum. Here we see political leaders thrashing around to conjure new realties out of their own bleak accounting. “Something’s gotta give,” they hope. But they could well have made matters worse for themselves.


Corbyn’s concession of a referendum is less than advertised, as he rows back to words intended to serve the triple duty of mollifying his Parliamentary bloc of Remainers, keeping up with the majority of Labour constituencies which voted Leave and removing him as far as possible from what he expects to be a disastrous “Tory Brexit”. The current wheeze is that Labour might abstain from the next “meaningful vote” in Parliament, in return for a second referendum. This is an easy give for Corbyn, as he knows that the Government will not agree and that the Commons votes aren’t there.

Still, he must plot his course between the Scylla of the Remain zealots among his parliamentary party and activists, and the Charybdis of the Leave voters he must love up to have a chance of office. Tories hold 42 of the top sixty seats he needs to win. Over three quarters of these voted Leave in 2016, with margins four times the swings Labour would be looking for.

The seats Labour must defend pose similar challenges. Tories are gunning for Labour in 54 of its sixty most vulnerable seats. Just under four out of five of these voted Leave, with margins well over three times the swing needed for them to change hands.

These statistics make it hard for the Labour party to back off from the 2016 referendum, which is how its Leave voters are bound to interpret a full-blooded commitment to a new one. They will remember that 52% of the population and 63% of constituencies chose to ignore Osborne’s “each family £4,300 a year worse off” and so on. Corbyn cannot expect his position to ease, especially with the anti-Semitism crisis coincidentally entangling his allies. This means first, that his Damascene conversion to a “peoples’ vote” need not be taken too seriously; and second, that for the time being we can continue to disregard him and his party as principals in Brexit decision-making.


This takes us to May, the central feature of whose position is not so much her Parliamentary weakness, but that it gets worse before our eyes: she is bleeding support from division to division. She is titular head of a Parliamentary party of which over half (53%) have failed to follow her lead at one time or another over the last thirteen Brexit votes. Under one in ten of her party consistently follows her without office of some kind, but not even this suffices to command loyalty: seventeen Tories still on the payroll have failed to follow her lead at least once over the last thirteen votes.

On Wednesday, the Cooper amendment introduced the prospect of delay. The figures confirm that neither carrots nor sticks do May’s business any more. Over one third of her party failed to follow her, including ten abstainers from the payroll vote. Thereafter she lost a minister.

Party discipline has broken down. The whips know that bolting the party line is the crack cocaine of Parliamentary life: once tried, it is all too easy to keep at it. The seductiveness of rebellion is confirmed by the growth of the ERG vote. Over the last thirteen Brexit divisions, the Group has voted against the Government on three occasions: the “meaningful votes” on her deal on 15 January and on 14 February, and the Cooper amendment on 27 February, introducing the possible delay.

The table shows that the ERG has a hardcore of 46 MPs; but the fullest count of support for the group has expanded from 121 a fortnight ago to 144 by Wednesday last. This tells us that the ERG is increasing its sway. The PM may toy with overcoming its blocking potential by throwing some goodies Corbyn’s way - transitional relief for regions and industries affected by Brexit; additional regional support; if truly desperate, lowering the bar for calling strikes. But the tribalism of British politics combines with Corbyn’s figures to make explicit parliamentary support from him a long shot.


The Cooper amendment obliges May to seek “a short limited extension to Article 50” if the Commons fails to approve her deal on 14 March. It is not clear what a “short limited extension” means, nor that the EU would be inclined to grant it without greater clarity as to British intentions, with France vocally unhappy. And meanwhile the world continues to turn: bilateral agreements emerge ad hoc, eg, as to UK citizens in Spain; the US begins negotiation for an FTA with a list of demands promptly stigmatised as inflammatory; Nick Timothy gives an interview to say that the PM has “not been prepared to take the steps” to make the most of Brexit.

It is not merely that these are extraordinary times in British politics - a child knows as much; but that the thrust of events, already bad for those who would overcome our impasse, turned worse this week. May hopes that the delay she has been obliged to concede might serve Micawber’s purposes. You never know; she could pull it off. But such stalling takes away one of her ploys, as the “short limited delay” of the Commons motion denies “no Brexit”. Meanwhile, the figures tell us that those closer to a “no deal” cast of mind - however discomfited by this week’s events - are gathering Parliamentary strength rather than the reverse. Something’s gotta give.