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.
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:
Who’s with me?
You can reduce the calculations in the Commons to two variables:
- How split is the Labour vote? Do they really put their weight behind a set of amendments?
- 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.
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.
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…