September 12, 2017
Brexit bill passes Commons
As of now there are more Labour rebels than Tory rebels in respect of the parties' position on Brexit, which is one of the reasons why we think that Theresa May will be able to steer her Brexit strategy through the British parliament without revolt. Yesterday, the Commons voted 326 to 290 in the second reading of the Brexit bill. Seven Labour MPs supported the government. Altogether 18 MPs failed to follow the party's three-line whip to support a No vote.
This is not the end of the legislative procedure of the single most important Brexit bill - which gives the government the right to transform EU laws into UK laws after Brexit. As the Guardian reports, Tory MPs are demanding changes to the bill to safeguard the rights of parliament. This is an important discussion about executive versus legislative powers, but it is not one that will stop, impede, or indeed much affect, Brexit itself. Last night's vote is a good metric for the effective Brexit majority in the House of Commons, which is 36. This is not large, but it is large enough to be sustainable over the course of the next 18 months.
The Tories who have raised doubts about the bill are led by Dominique Grieve, a former attorney general who has co-signed a petition to strengthen the role of parliament in the Brexit process. Since the whole argument in favour of Brexit is about a return of control, it makes no sense for the parliament to cede all powers to the government. He wants two changes to the bill. The first is a joint committee of Commons and Lords to scrutinise the government's use of its new powers. And the second is to limit ministers' room for manoeuvre. The Guardian writes that Grieve and his collaborators have strong support in the Commons, including among hard Brexiteers, so this will remain a genuinely difficult political issue resulting in what the Guardian calls
"a series of difficult parliamentary votes for May in the coming months."
The UK government is willing to make some concessions, so we would expect a compromise - but this is clearly one issue to watch.
The pollster Peter Kellner is much less optimistic. He says that under normal circumstances Theresa May would now sack Boris Johnson and David Davis, but cannot afford to do so given her narrow majority. If she did, she could provoke a leadership challenge, which she might well lose.
"So the good ship United Kingdom seeks to navigate the hazardous, rock-strewn waters of the Brexit negotiations with a nervous captain, two widely criticised helmsmen, and her 317-strong crew on the verge of mutiny. Nobody should be surprised if the vessel runs aground."
We are less pessimistic than Kellner, and disagree with the consensus among the political class in the UK that May will not last. We have argued in the past that this judgement is based primarily on a general lack of experience of minority governments, and of a lack of precedents of an overwhelming single policy issue like Brexit. Under normal circumstances, the Tories might well rebel against their leader but, if they did so now, they would risk a general election which they could lose. And, with it, they would risk Brexit given the shiftiness in the position of the Labour Party. This is why we believe that the Tories will have no choice but to keep May in the job until after Brexit. And, once she has delivered Brexit, we would expect her reputation and political position to strengthen.