The prime minister has secured a deal with the European Union to allow Brexit without tears – or at least without the disruption anticipated from leaving without a deal. The deal is supported by most Conservative MPs but opposed by their allies in the DUP; the opposition parties are mostly ready to vote it down but from widely differing perspectives. It looks possible but unlikely that the PM will win the support of most MPs in an historic vote in two days’ time.
How is today's scenario different from the one faced by Teresa May twelve months ago, and are Johnson’s prospects any better than May’s?
Firstly Boris Johnson has given himself a steeper gradient to climb by expelling twenty-one Conservative MPs from their parliamentary party. Some of these have indicated they will support him on Saturday whilst others have gone beyond the Pale to the emboldened Liberal Democrats, who also took a Tory seat in the only by-election under Johnson. How many of the remainder – perhaps a dozen MPs – will set aside their pique and vote for the Brexit deal remains unknown. As under May, the DUP’s resistance robs the PM of another ten votes.
On the other hand Johnson has a much greater chance of corralling the strictest Brexiteers in the Commons in the European Research Group. With their champions such as Jacob Rees-Mogg embedded in government, and reassured of Johnson’s good intent by his record in the referendum and in the harsh tone of his public exchanges with the EU leadership, they are likely – with the exception of perhaps ten ‘Spartans’ still suspicious of any deal – to vote for the deal. Johnson also hopes to recruit a number of Labour backbenchers – estimates put the group at a maximum of twenty, though only two broke ranks in the early parliamentary votes under Johnson – who feel obliged to support a deal so as to honour the result of the referendum, particularly where their own constituencies voted ‘Leave’.
The opposition has organised itself effectively against Johnson, and will need to do so again to be sure of defeating him on Saturday. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid and the lone Green MP will line up together against the new deal, guaranteeing over 300 votes before looking at the Independent Group for Change’s remaining five MPs. There may be division in Labour ranks over the possibility of a new referendum, but on the issue of the deal the opposition starts in pole position.
More important than the positions of the parties, however, are two other factors, one aiding the PM and the other casting a shadow over his deal. The first is Brexit fatigue: Johnson has, more than Teresa May had, the chance to appeal to the ‘anything to end the pain’ dimension of the current political climate which affects MPs on both sides; the other, looming beyond the parliamentary battle, is Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which has already condemned the deal as a sell-out (‘Barnier’s Brexit’). It would be only the latest irony of the Brexit process if Johnson were to squeeze victory out of the Commons and go to a general election only to lose his majority because of the vengeful votes of those who see him as a Brexit traitor.
Stranger things have happened…