Enter the dragon

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So it’s official. Parliament must vote on Article 50. Lord Neuberger, like some gold-ringed boxing promoter, has confirmed that we are about to enjoy the parliamentary rumble of the century.

The news shouldn’t surprise anyone; the interesting points of law had been decided at the High Court, and this judgment was largely a rubber stamping of sound reasoning. Nor does the judgment itself say anything other than that parliament must vote before article 50 can be triggered – hardly enough to set you on the edge of your seat.

But do not be fooled by this quiet proceduralism. In less than a fortnight, we could see the beginning of the end for Theresa May, the House of Lords and/or the Tory and Labour parties as we know them.

Or not. Probably not, at least in the short term. But we haven’t had a parliamentary vote this significant in three quarters of a century, and what’s at stake is a hell of a lot bigger than membership of the EU.

The game

Let’s start with the basics. What is happening next? Everyone is agreed that parliament will have to vote before Article 50 can be triggered. Government has said that it plans to get this power as soon as possible, probably by a very short bill introduced into parliament next week.

This bill will almost certainly pass the Commons – the question will be whether it gets amended before it does. The government wants a blank cheque in order to act however it chooses. But if the right to trigger is hemmed in with limits, caveats, requirements, reversions, checkpoints and so on then it will probably prove impossible to use.

Then, if it makes it through the Commons, it has to get through the Lords. The Lords don’t have to pass the bill at all; and they can also amend the bill themselves and send it back to the Commons. The Commons then votes on those amendments  and so on (a process known as ping-pong) until both houses are agreed. Or, quite possibly, not.

In order for Theresa May to meet her deadline of March, this process has to be completed in about 8 weeks. The parliamentary process can run that fast; but if you can’t get an underlying agreement then it can’t be forced to a conclusion until a year has elapsed.

So the three things you have to watch here are:

  • Supporters
  • Amendments
  • Time

Who’s with me?

You can reduce the calculations in the Commons to two variables:

  1. How split is the Labour vote? Do they really put their weight behind a set of amendments?
  2. How many Tories risk dire vengeance by voting for the amendments?

Loosely speaking, if Labour tries some concerted opposition and convinces about 20 Tories to rebel, plus one extra for each rebel of their own, then the government will lose.

The numbers here are anyone’s guess. Most MPs backed remain, including all-but-ten Labour MPs. But the reality of the referendum result will not be lost on them; and nor will the pressure of their own leadership not to look at odds with public opinion. That goes double for the government side.

Many MPs will also realise their vote isn’t going to be forgotten. A whole generation of Labour politicians were judged by how they voted on Iraq; this will equally totemic. Do you want to be the one who defied the will of the British people and betrayed the 52%? Or do you feel that the PM’s lurch to a hard Brexit has broken the link with popular sovereignty altogether, and risks damning the country to economic collapse?

And then there’s revenge. There are definitely 20 Tory MPs who, to put it crudely, wouldn’t piss on Theresa May if she was on fire. They know that if she loses this vote then she is grievously wounded. This group is less reliable – they will pay a very heavy price for treachery – but equally this is the best chance they’ll have to get even. Watch what happens with some of George Osborne’s best friends, particularly if the process drags on.

U.K. Chancellor George Osborne Launches National Loan Guarantee Scheme
Remember me…?

The question looks different again in the Lords. Here, the government is a stonking 300 peers short of a majority, and even those peers that it does have are far more remain-inclined (and far less beholden to the PM) than MPs. The only thing that can ensure a clear passage here is fear of undermining the whole democratic process (something that hasn’t traditionally bothered our upper house), which brings peers into line.

I suspect that the level of support in both houses depends on what sort of question you are asking, which brings us onto…

What the hell are you doing?

The government wants to do this quick and fast, and with the minimum amount of debate possible. The plan goes something like this:

  • The PM set out a clear twelve point plan for Brexit. That’s all the plan you need, and asking for anything more is asking for things the UK can’t promise.
  • Democratic accountability demands that Parliament get out of the way of the referendum result.
  • Behind the scenes, the whips make clear that this is not an area where rebellion of any kind will be forgiven.
  • If the House of Lords gets in the way, let them know that the much-delayed abolition of the House could finally happen if they are so flagrantly out of line with the views of the people.

That would be an easy plan for a government with a 100+ majority; our government has a majority of 16.

Instinctively, I don’t think the ‘no negotiation’ strategy is likely to work. Parliament hasn’t had a big Brexit debate, and every bloody MP will want their thoughts to be on the record. That stands against discipline. There are also some points on which I think you can get an easy majority for amendment – guaranteeing continued rights for EU nationals living in the UK, for example. And once you’ve got one amendment, the floodgates are open.

Balanced against this though is that there doesn’t appear to be much of an alternative. No alternative leadership (despite the Lib Dems’ best efforts); no idea of what the likely amendments might be. Government has been pretty slick in terms of presenting a joined up and disciplined message on its plans. By contrast, the letter at the weekend that 46 Labour MPs sent to the PM read like a list of demands from a student debating society.

So it will all come down to a frantic battle for the support of individual members over the next week or so. For the moment, I think odds favour the government; but that could be reversed by one well-placed speech.

You want it when!?

The other thing worth noting is that the government is on a timetable; the amenders are not. If Theresa May can’t get a deal by March, she’s seen as having failed. This is the other weakness of the force-it-through approach, particularly given the delaying power of the Lords.

This would naturally push you towards finding a compromise. But government is taking an approach that makes compromise structurally almost impossible. It isn’t obvious how those two are resolved by anything short of total victory.

And if I don’t…?

No one is yet asking whether losing this vote means the government falls. Historically, it would have; though there’s not exactly a lot of precedent here.

I don’t think the wrong amendments would force the PM to step down – it’s not quite a direct enough repudiation (though outright losing the vote would be different). But the government does have in its back pocket the threat to turn the whole question into a confidence vote, and thereby potentially trigger a general election.

A general election would both solve the government’s majority problem, and also give it the right to overrule the Lords (the Lords traditionally does not impede any measure in a winning party’s election manifesto). It’s a clear platform on which to go to the country, and few Labour MPs will want an election with polls being where they are. Government is far better-placed to thrive in an election than its opponents.

But if you’ve got to the point of holding an election, the Tories already have rebellions in their own ranks. This turns a family quarrel into a shooting war, and almost certainly forces the rebels to find a new, permanent allegiance. If the election is only about one thing, it also risks uniting the opposition into a single team – which would be catastrophic for the longer term.

Anyone’s guess

There comes a point at which you have to give up prediction and get out the popcorn. The next few weeks might just see the start of the biggest political shake-up since the 1910s, or even the 1840s. And it could well depend, not on the great flows of impersonal social factors, but the tongues and minds of individual parliamentarians.

Maybe 2016 was just the warm-up act for a real year of revolution…

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The one thing no one is saying about the Tory leadership contest

Politics is the story of people fighting to the death for the chance to drink a poisoned chalice. The Tory leadership contest is no different. Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom will spend the next two months doing their utmost to be declared next Tory leader; but whichever wins is probably destined for failure.

Why? Well, it’s nothing to do with Brexit, at least in the first instance. It’s all to do with the number 16.

16

Cast your minds back to May 2015. The Tories shocked pretty much everyone with an electoral majority – a good forty seats stronger than most people predicted. It meant that, against all expectations, we had one party large enough to form a majority government.

That was a dramatic upset that looked like a huge win for Cameron and Osborne. Politically, it seemed like a massive endorsement of their platform. But as 2015 wore on and 2016 started, it was increasingly clear that there are some victories that you don’t want to win. Yes, the government had a majority; and yes, it had about a hundred seats more than its nearest rival; but its total majority (i.e. all Tories vs all other voting MPs) was 16.

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Beware the ghost of Redwoods present

John Major in 1992 had had a majority of 21. If you remember politics in the 1990s, that did not work out well for him. Firstly, that majority only got smaller as byelections and defections whittled down the numbers. Second, a small group of ultra-Eurosceptic Tories began a concerted campaign to hold his government to ransom. As a result, the government had effectively lost its majority even before Tony Blair wiped the floor with them in 1997.

There were some advantages on the Tories’ side this time around – an incompetent opposition that was incapable of holding them to account; the non-government vote split up between many different parties. Nevertheless, within a few months history had begun to quietly repeat itself. The government quietly gave up votes on Sunday trading laws, compulsory academy schools, trade union reform and disability cuts. Nor was this accidental – a group of incorrigible opponents of the PM, left out in the cold during the Coalition, were actively setting out to cause mischief and disrupt a transfer of power to Osborne ahead of any leadership contest.

No.10 had been playing these differences down, possibly with a plan to sort out the misbehavers after the EU referendum. That didn’t work out, and it’s now down to the next PM to sort out.

The problem they have to fix is this: eight MPs – any eight MPs – working with the opposition can stop the government getting any business done. That’s fewer than one MP in forty. That doesn’t just mean the head-bangers on the right; it also means the wets in the centre, the twitchiest dwellers in the marginal seats, the outriders for the person who fancies themselves the next leader of the Tory party, or even just the people who enjoy being a bit of a git.

Add to this the fact that these MPs will have plenty to disagree about. The next PM has to define the trade deal with the EU, with the crux of the negotiations likely to be whether or not the UK puts limiting free movement ahead of access to the single market. Whichever one is chosen, I suspect there will be a lot more than eight Tory MPs who disagree with the choice.

There are ways around this problem – getting support from other parts of parliament (notably the DUP and UKIP’s Douglas Carswell), or skilful whipping of the Tory vote in parliament. Both methods come with their costs, and reduce government’s freedom to act. The 1974-9 parliament, charted so well in the play This House (back on stage this November) shows how guttingly miserable such a process can be.

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Time to learn how to count to 322

So whoever wins the crown, the chances of them actually getting much done while they wear it are close to nil. The odds of the government even lasting to the 2020 general election are relatively small. (More on the prospects for an early election in a later post). Under current conditions, the winner of the leadership contest is mostly winning the chance to be a repeated loser.

But look on the bright side. At least the job comes with its own plane.