It is reasonable to assume the government will fail the Meaningful Vote. What happens next? What could Theresa May offer to get Labour on board?
Nothing much will have substantively changed about the deal the government has already agreed. As a result, enough DUP and Conservative MPs will vote against it to ensure its failure.
The more interesting question is what happens next — Deal or No-Deal.
Let’s deal with No-Deal first. It is opposed by substantial majorities in the House of Commons and in the country (with the conspicuous exception of many Conservative party members). But it is the axiomatic outcome at the end of March if there is no deal (unless Article 50 is extended or revoked).
So, while No-Deal would be the technical base case after a Meaningful Vote fails, it is not the preferred outcome for pretty much all constituencies (excluding Conservative Party members).
A likely strategy would be to hold a second (or even a third) vote on the Deal and rely on fear, etc. to gain support from more Conservative MPs and some Labour MPs too. This is a very risky strategy. A reasonable assumption is that the government would need around 50 Labour MPs to vote for the deal — a huge challenge.
It is also an inherently self-damaging strategy because it, in effect, relies on some of the damaging consequences of No-Deal becoming apparent before the end of March.
At this point, let’s also discount a successful vote of confidence leading to a General Election. There simply aren’t the votes for it. Let’s also discount a second referendum. Without Labour support (and there is little evidence yet that this will be forthcoming), there are nowhere even close to enough votes. Finally, let’s discount regretfully the Norway-type alternatives. With honourable exceptions aside, MPs opposed to Theresa May’s Deal have failed to define workable alternatives to it — a huge fail.
This leads us to two very obvious (and unsurprising) conclusions: Theresa May’s Deal is the only one ‘on the table’; and, formal Labour Party support will be needed to pass the Meaningful Vote.
What, then, might be a workable way to achieve Labour support, assuming that fear of No-Deal alone is neither sufficient nor a responsible approach.
There is little prospect of a commitment (via the Political Declaration) to a full Customs Union. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, it would lose even more Conservative support.
Whatever the downside risk, there seems little prospect of the government agreeing a Brexit Deal that irreparably fractures the Conservative party.
So, what, then? This is the point at which Labour might shift its position to support a second referendum. But, as noted above, there is little evidence yet that this will happen.
The compromise space (assuming the EU’s negotiating parameters are effectively fixed) is the minimum possible changes to the Deal necessary to gain Labour support (noting the No-Deal risk) and not lose more Conservative support.
There are three ways to do this:
1. The Political Declaration could be made even more anodyne — i.e. take all the language that is directive to a future destination is removed;
2. The government could make some sort of commitment to the backstop being a worst case scenario — i.e. a commitment to negotiating a deal that avoids the backstop, even if that means extending transition;
3. More controversially, the government might commit to a post-Brexit General Election. This would be highly desirable for Labour.
It may also be an inevitable consequence of passing Theresa May’s Deal without the DUP’s support and the government thereby losing its working majority.
To be this close to a No-Deal situation with all its negative consequences is a huge failure for numerous stakeholders in Britain.
Amidst stiff competition, perhaps the single biggest failure so far has been the government’s inability to appreciate that its Deal needs cross party support and may need to be amended accordingly.
It is more than past time for the government to change its approach.🔷
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(This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article, with the author’s consent, with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected.)