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News | Question of the Week, WC 16th Sept
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Question of the Week, WC 16th Sept

Q. Would a revised Brexit deal with a Northern Ireland-only backstop be approved by the Commons?

A. The short answer is no.  The maths in parliament are stacked heavily against the PM.  On 29 March, only 286 MPs voted for Theresa May’s deal in the third “meaningful vote” on the WA, of which 277 were Tory MPs.  In theory, the government needs 318 votes to pass legislation, as there are 635 actively-voting MPs; 650 less four tellers, four Speakers and seven Sinn Fein MPs.  Abstentions might lower the winning line, but not by much.  On 29 March, 4 MPs—two Labour, one SNP and one Independent—abstained, so the government could have won with 316 votes.

Since March, Mr. Johnson has lost one of the MPs who voted for Theresa May’s deal in March in a by-election.  He also has jettisoned a further 17 MPs who backed the deal in March because they voted to block no-deal earlier this month—and a further four who voted against no-deal and the previous deal—though we suspect that the former group of 17 would back a revised deal, perhaps as a way of being accepted back into the party.

If Mr. Johnson is to have any chance of success, he must win over most of the 34 Conservative MPs who voted against the WA in March.  Now that he has purged Remain-leaning Tories from the party for voting against the government earlier this month, he also can credibly threaten these MPs with expulsion.  But six of the 34 MPs opposed the deal because they wanted a softer Brexit or no Brexit at all; two of them since have joined the Lib Dems while a further three have been expelled from the party.  In addition, there is a hard core of about 10 Conservative MPs who won’t back a NI-only backstop deal, because they object to other aspects of the WA, such as the divorce bill, or who still hold out hope for a “clean break” no-deal Brexit.  That leaves only an extra 18 Tory MPs who plausibly now would back the reformed WA, raising the total to 303, still 15 short of the wining line.

Mr. Johnson, therefore, needs to win over a further 15 Labour MPs, in addition to the five who already supported the previous deal in March.  We doubt that enough can be persuaded.  Admittedly, Caroline Flint and Stephen Kinnock have been to Brussels to speak to Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier to convince him that a revised Brexit deal could get through the Commons.  They claim that up to 50 Labour MPs could be turned.  Their change of heart would be motivated both out of a desire to permanently take no-deal off the table, but also to improve their chances of holding onto their seats in the upcoming general election.  Current opinion polls are consistent with Labour losing about 50 seats, of which 40 would be lost to the Conservatives primarily in Leave-strongholds in the North and the Midlands.  The logic goes that by voting for a deal, support for the Conservatives will crumble and naturally left-leaning voters in these seats will support Labour again.

A more compelling case, however, can be made that these MPs will have a better chance of retaining their seats if the Tories have missed the October 31 deadline and have bled support to the Brexit party.  Opinion polls show that Conservatives lost far more support than Labour to the Brexit party when the original March 31 deadline elapsed.  Meanwhile, to most British voters, the slightly modified WA will look no different to the original, which was poorly received.  According to Kantar, just 12% of people thought in March that Theresa May’s deal was the best option.  That proportion since has dropped to just 6%.

Accordingly, the chances of Mr. Johnson successfully forcing a revised Brexit deal through the Commons before October 31 remain remote.  Knowing this, we doubt he will try, as it would better for him to contest the general election with both a deal and no-deal still options in play than to flog a dead horse deal.  Our base case remains that the October Brexit deadline will be pushed back to January, and that the pre-Christmas general election will yield another hung parliament and further Brexit delays.

Samuel Tombs, Chief U.K. Economist

Pantheon Macroeconomics

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Posted: 20th Sep 2019

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