25 January 2019

Last Tuesday, Parliament voted overwhelmingly against the Brexit deal which the Government has negotiated with the EU. But whilst it is clear what MPs are against, it is far less clear what they are for; the 432 MPs who voted against the deal have very diverse views on their preferred Brexit outcome. This blog analyses the different parliamentary groupings, and assesses whether a majority might be found. In practice, a majority in the House requires 318 MPs, once the speakers, tellers and 7 Sinn Fein MPs are discounted.


The groupings

Government payroll and loyalists: 182 MPs

This group comprises Conservative frontbenchers and ministers, as well as loyalist backbenchers who voted for the deal. 196 Conservative MPs in total voted in favour of the deal, but 14 of these back the ‘Norway Plus’ model, and are therefore not included in this group.

Guaranteed opposition votes: 5 MPs

This group includes 2 Independent MPs – Northern Ireland Unionist Sylvia Hermon, and former Liberal Democrat Stephen Lloyd – who have promised to vote for any Brexit deal. It also includes the 3 Labour MPs who voted for the deal – Kevin Barron, John Mann, and Ian Austin. (Ex-Labour Independent Frank Field also voted for the deal, but is better considered as a member of the ‘Norway Plus’ group.)

Norway Plus: 20-40 MPs

A small but vocal group in Parliament is the so-called ‘Norway Plus’ group, which calls for the UK to remain in the European Economic Area (EEA) and establish an interim customs union with the EU. Nominally, Norway Plus is a cross-party alliance, led by the Conservative MP Nick Boles and the Labour MP Stephen Kinnock. At present, the group’s public supporters are up to 15 Conservative MPs – with tacit backing from some ministers – and a smaller group of 5 Labour MPs, plus 2 ex-Labour Independents (Frank Field and Ivan Lewis). It is possible that the group’s numbers could also be swelled by another 15-20 ex-Remain Labour backbenchers who have not declared in favour of a second referendum, such as Yvette Cooper. Almost all the Conservative proponents of Norway Plus (with the exception of Robert Halfon) voted for the government’s deal, as they recognise that Norway Plus is an option for the future relationship and still requires a Withdrawal Agreement. By contrast, all of the Labour proponents voted against the deal.

The strength of the Norway camp has been diluted by the migration of many of their erstwhile backers into the second referendum group. In July, 75 Labour MPs rebelled against the whip to vote for an amendment that would have kept the UK in the EEA – but 69 of these MPs are now backing a second referendum. The SNP, too, used to say that they could accept a Brexit deal that kept the UK in the single market and customs union – but now they too back a second referendum instead, with their Westminster leader Ian Blackford saying recently, “that ship [Norway+] has now sailed… we ought to be staying in the EU.”

Second referendum: 150 MPs

A number of MPs from different parties call for a second referendum or ‘People’s Vote,’ arguing that to break the Parliamentary impasse the question needs to be put back to the people. However, while the size of this grouping has increased in recent months, it is still well short of a Parliamentary majority.

Open Europe analysis found that there are currently 150 MPs who are openly committed to a second referendum. There are 89 from Labour, and 9 Conservatives. They are joined by all the MPs from the SNP (35), the Liberal Democrats (11), and Plaid Cymru (4) – plus the Green MP Caroline Lucas, and ex-Labour Independent Jared O’Mara.

In addition, there is a smaller group of around 11 MPs (including 2 Conservatives) who have hinted at conditional support for a second referendum. An example is the Conservative MP Damian Collins, who prioritises securing an independent exit mechanism from the backstop – but says if that is not possible, there should be “some mechanism of consulting the people, be it a general election or a second referendum.”

Labour frontbench and loyalists: 120+ MPs

The Labour frontbench voted against the Withdrawal Agreement en masse, and there is little sign they will do any differently in a future vote. But at some point, this position may change. As previously argued on this blog, Labour’s opposition to the deal is more about politics than policy. Unless they choose to back a second referendum, Labour may yet find it can live with the only deal on the table – particularly if the government comes to some sort of agreement with them on a customs union.

Labour waverers: 20+ MPs

This group mainly comprises former Remain Labour MPs in Leave-voting seats, such as Caroline Flint and Gareth Snell. This group voted against the Government’s deal last week, but may prove an important swing vote in the future. All are opposed to both No Deal and a second referendum. Most are also opposed to single market membership and freedom of movement, but are more relaxed about the UK remaining in a customs union. The size of this group is uncertain, and could be as large as 30.

Tory waverers: 40 MPs

This group consists of around one third of the 118 Conservative rebels. These MPs have concerns over the backstop, but most are not hardline Brexiteers – indeed, many of them, such as Sir Hugo Swire and Mark Harper, voted to Remain. Pressure from their associations may have encouraged them to rebel, as well as the fact that the vote was seen as a foregone conclusion. Another MP in this group is Chair of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady, who wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that the deal might “be the only bridge left standing that can lead us to freedom. All we need to do is make the backstop explicitly temporary. We don’t need the whole agreement reopened, just a legally binding codicil.”

No Deal is better than a bad deal: 35-55 MPs

As well as the open advocates of No Deal below, there exists a larger group of MPs who would ideally like a deal, but say they prefer No Deal to the existing deal. Many of these MPs demand that the Prime Minister fundamentally renegotiate the deal, particularly around the backstop – though some of these demands are so unrealistic that the likely outcome in practice would be No Deal. This group includes between 25 and 40 Conservative MPs, including former Brexit Secretaries David Davis and Dominic Raab. It also includes the 10 MPs from the DUP, which has said it wants a deal but cannot support the backstop as currently formulated, and the Labour Brexiteer Graham Stringer.

However, there have recently been signs that some of the MPs in this group could reluctantly back the deal, as they fear it may be their only chance to get any form of Brexit.

Currently advocating No Deal: 20-25 MPs

The line between those who actually advocate No Deal and those who are relaxed about it but would prefer a deal is a fine one. But based on public statements, only around 20-25 MPs are actively advocating No Deal. Almost all are Conservatives, including Sir Bill Cash, Sir John Redwood and Peter Bone; also in this group is the Labour MP Kate Hoey. However, though they are small in number, the advantage the ‘No Dealers’ have is that their option is the legal default under Article 50. Unlike the other options, it does not need a parliamentary majority in its favour; it happens automatically unless either a deal is passed, or Article 50 is revoked.


Analysis: the routes to a majority

There is no majority for a second referendum

As things stand, the second referendum group (150 MPs) are well short of a majority. Campaigners have therefore focused considerable attention on persuading the Labour frontbench to unequivocally back a referendum; current Labour policy merely refers to a referendum as one of several “options,” and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn seems reluctant to give a firmer commitment. But even with support from the Labour frontbench, it is far from clear that there would be a parliamentary majority for a second referendum. Analysis by the New Statesman found that there are at least 26 Labour MPs who are on the record as opposed to a second referendum – this includes the 5 committed Labour Brexiteers, as well as a number of the former Remain MPs in Leave-voting seats. Assuming this figure is correct – and it could be higher- the maximum number of MPs voting  in favour of a second referendum, even with Labour frontbench support, would only be 293:

  • Labour: 227
  • SNP: 35
  • Conservative: 11
  • Liberal Democrat: 11
  • Plaid Cymru: 4
  • Green: 1
  • Independent: 1

In this scenario, where Labour whips for a second referendum but 26 MPs rebel, the coalition against a second referendum (below) would stand at 342 – a majority of 49.

  • Conservative: 303
  • Labour: 26
  • DUP: 10
  • Independent: 4

MPs for and against a second referendum, if the Labour leadership whipped in favour

Overturning this deficit will be a tall order for second referendum backers, particularly when many prominent Conservative Remainers, such as Nicky Morgan and Nick Boles, are strongly opposed.

The Norway Plus ‘compromise’ does not necessarily have a majority either

One of the main arguments put forward by proponents of Norway Plus is that it is a compromise option which may win a majority in Parliament. But this is far from clear. The majority of MPs who voted against the deal last week did not do so because they wanted Norway Plus instead. Conservative Brexiteers would oppose Norway Plus more strongly than they oppose this deal. The Labour frontbench does not yet support it either; even if it did, a number of Labour backbenchers have made it clear that they will not support single market membership. And it is far from clear that pro-referendum MPs would back Norway Plus as a fall-back; many have gone out of their way to denigrate the Norway Plus model in recent weeks, in what has been described as “scorched earth tactics.” Conservative MP Jo Johnson, for example, described Norway Plus as a “nonstarter” that would leave the UK as a “rule taker.”

In any case, Norway Plus is an option for the future relationship, and would involve accepting the Withdrawal Agreement and backstop in full. It is not materially different to the existing deal – indeed, it is already possible under the existing deal.

Parliament is strongly opposed to No Deal

It is also clear that there are only a small number of MPs happy with No Deal – either as their first choice or if changes to the current deal are impossible. Opposition to No Deal in Parliament is strong – almost all opposition MPs are strongly against it, along with dozens of Conservative backbenchers and ministers.

However, No Deal is the default option under Article 50. As EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier pointed out this week, “opposing a No Deal will not stop a No Deal from happening at the end of March.” Procedural innovations, such as Yvette Cooper’s Bill to extend Article 50, do not prevent No Deal; they merely delay the moment of reckoning. Ultimately, if Parliament doesn’t want No Deal and doesn’t want to prevent Brexit entirely, it may yet end up coalescing around a version of the deal.

Overturning last week’s defeat seems a tall order – yet there is a Commons majority for some form of negotiated exit

To get the deal over the line, the Government needs to win over 116 MPs who voted against the deal – or persuade some to abstain. Overturning such a margin is a tall order, and it is likely that the Government will need to win over both Conservative and Labour MPs if the deal is to pass. As outlined below, much depends on the position taken by the Labour leadership.

  • If the Labour frontbench and loyalists (around 120 MPs) voted for the deal, the Government would likely have a majority without needing to win over any more Conservative votes. However, this seems unlikely at this stage, and would split both main parties.
  • If the Labour frontbench abstained on the deal, the Government would need to flip 55 MPs in order to get a majority – most likely a mixture of Conservative and Labour MPs.

If the Labour frontbench continues to oppose the deal, the Government will have to win over a lot of Conservatives. This is partly because a large number of Labour backbenchers back a second referendum; as a result, the maximum size of a Labour rebellion in favour of the deal is probably around 45, which would still leave the government 71 votes short. Winning over this many Conservative rebels seems challenging, but recent amendments to the backstop tabled by backbenchers Sir Graham Brady and Andrew Murrison may give an indication of how many rebels could be won over.

  • If the Government wins over all of the Conservative rebels (other than the 9 second referendum supporters), plus the DUP, this would give it 119 extra votes – enough for a small majority without requiring any extra Labour votes. However, this seems unlikely at present.
  • If the Labour frontbench continued to oppose the deal but 20 Labour MPs rebelled to back it, the Government would still need to persuade 96 Conservative or DUP MPs to change their minds. 40 Labour rebels would require 76 Conservative and DUP votes, and so on.

The maths looks tough for the Government; unsurprisingly, when 432 MPs voted against the deal. Yet only 150 of these are for a second referendum, and less than 80 would be happy to leave with No Deal. It logically follows that there is a strong majority in Parliament for some form of negotiated exit from the EU. Additionally, the majority for the deal does not necessarily need to be found in one go; if the majority against it is significantly reduced in a second vote, it will become seen as a much stronger contender. As the clock runs down, MPs on both sides of the house may yet find they can live with a version of the deal on the table.