Enter the dragon


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…


Night of the Long Stilettos

There is one moment when the British political system demonstrates its total superiority over the rest of the world. Only in our country, plus a few direct descendants, could two men be PM and Chancellor one day, and be unable to get an inside table at a local bakery the next. Normally that kind of descent takes either months or handcuffs.

My own predictions for the Cabinet may not have been spectacularly perspicacious – though I take a certain pleasure for having been as accurate as both Robert Peston and Iain Dale, and a whole day earlier. And the source of the error was misreading how the need to Brexit-up the cabinet would be resolved – not by putting a lightweight into May’s own Home Office, but by handing over the Foreign Office to a Brexiteer. And also leaving Osborne’s severed head out for the birds.

If you want to characterise this reshuffle, there are two points I’d draw out:

  • This is a cabinet built for Brexit. Having a Brexit-heavy team means that May has quite a mandate with the Leavers, implicitly, for whatever deal emerges. Tory Brexiteers would have been able to shout ‘fix’ if a Remainer team had stitched together a deal that put the Single Market first and quietly forgot about restricting freedom of movement. But with Boris, Fox and Davis in charge, they can’t say it’s been done to them. Plus, there isn’t really anyone to lead the fight back.
  • May has eliminated almost all current rivals. Only non-threatening leadership contenders have been allowed near power: Andrea Leadsom (Keeping Up Appearance’s answer to Sarah Palin) at the Department of Bovine Misery and the reanimated corpse of Boris Johnson as minister for all the bits of the Foreign Office that don’t matter. Osborne, Gove and Morgan – three actual threats – are as far from power as they can be thrown. The top team are a bunch of political emasculates with no significant backing within the party without the backing to launch a coup, so a leadership challenge from within the Cabinet looks very unlikely.

This configuration makes me fairly confident that May means what she says when she says no early election and no second referendum. She’s built one of the few cabinets that could actually do an EU deal without needing to secure some kind of extra mandate. I hadn’t thought such a thing was possible.

But before you get carried away with the brilliance of this – beware two weaknesses.

First off, ruthlessness isn’t without its consequences.

This is not Game of Thrones, where you throw the bodies of your defeated rivals into a ditch. When you fire George Osborne, you’re effectively inviting him to spend more time plotting his vengeance upon you.

Macmillan could carry out the Night of the Long Knives because he had a majority of close to a hundred. May has a majority of sixteen, which drops to fifteen when they elect Jo Cox’s replacement in a few weeks.

She’s betting heavily that Osborne and Gove were backed by shallow careerists who will melt away now they are powerless. That’s not a given. Even the ministerial sackings make up enough people to make her majority meaningless, when the right moment comes – and while I don’t think she’ll lose anything totemic, I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few months’ time she finds herself getting frequently frustrated on small things and looking subtly less in control.

And then, there’s weakness number two.

Back from the dead

Boris is a disaster waiting to happen, at least in the political sense. May had no choice but to put a Brexiteer here, and there were almost no alternatives whatsoever. When Boris cocks up (and cock up he will, for reasons that seem almost Pavlovan) there is the question of who fills his place.

There are only three choices from the Leaver ranks. I think May might have put Priti Patel in at DfID for precisely this reason – so she has a replacement for Boris ready to go with some international experience. Unfortunately, Patel is famously undiplomatic in her nature and far from an ideal choice. Neither Grayling nor Leadsom look like they are up to the job. So where can you go?

I think the logic takes you back round to George Osborne (for the contacts) or Michael Gove (for the Leave credentials). But whereas it would have looked magnanimous to appoint either now, it will look weak in a year or two’s time, if it’s on the back of a Boris resignation.

In terms of Leave-Remain, it’s an extremely clever reshuffle. But in purging the Osborne/Cameron set at the same time, she’s chosen to play for high stakes. The government needs plenty of successes before the recession hits, the negotiations bite or Boris explodes. The clock is ticking.