Tuesday 17 September 2019

Sean O'Grady: 'How May could yet confound all the critics and get her Brexit bill through parliament'

Thick skin: Theresa May can handle the heat – but still faces a battle to get a deal ratified. Photo: REUTERS/Rebecca Naden
Thick skin: Theresa May can handle the heat – but still faces a battle to get a deal ratified. Photo: REUTERS/Rebecca Naden

Sean O'Grady

Plainly the odds are stacked against Theresa May getting her deal through parliament, and you'd be amazed if it was approved first time round. Labour will vote fairly solidly against it and there will be enough disgruntled Tory MPs on either side of the debate plus the adamantine DUP to see the prime minister go down to what will inevitably be called a "humiliation".

Still, she's well used to those and must view the prospect with equanimity. The snap election; Chequers; Salzburg; cabinet resignations; threats to topple her; that awful coughing conference speech - she's got the T-shirt all right.

She will then be obliged to make a statement to parliament as to what she will do next. In the spirit of things, she should probably say that she has listened to the great sovereign parliament and will ask the Europeans if they fancy going through the whole thing all over again. That will waste about a day of her time as she flies to Brussels to be told, once again, that there is no other deal available for Britain.

I'm no expert on parliamentary procedure, but then the Commons can have a vote on "no deal" which will be voted down. After that (or before, it doesn't matter that much), Jeremy Corbyn will table a vote of no confidence in the government. This will be defeated, because the DUP will probably abstain or vote with her.

Alternatively and pre-emptively (or as well - it will get chaotic) she could table her own "hybrid" vote of confidence. That states the Commons has confidence in Her Majesty's government "in respect of its European policy". This was a device John Major used to get himself out of an unwinnable position when he was faced with getting his European legislation through the Commons in the 1990s, to ratify the Maastricht Treaty.

This would present the Tory rebels who dislike Brexit with a sharp dilemma. If they vote down May's motion then they risk a general election or, more remotely, a minority Labour government.

The rebels would be told that May might have to resign on matter of principle in her personal policy - meaning a protracted Tory leadership contest or the arrival of some possibly unwelcome compromise candidate in No 10. This would be hard for any rebel to defend.

The fixed-term Parliaments Act makes the old procedure of losing the confidence of the Commons more complicated, and there would have to be a confidence vote on the pure form of words prescribed in the act, but still, the danger is that we'd end up with a January general election - freezing cold, dark and possibly snowbound in places. Not ideal campaigning or voting conditions. "General Winter" will rescue May from that possibility.

Any single one of the Tory rebels on either side can be blamed - by their constituency associations and the voters - for inducing mayhem and heralding a Corbyn-led Marxist regime. The whips will make sure they realise that. And what if Labour officially abstained on this vote - because it was (deliberately and cynically) hybrid? Or if a phalanx of Labour rebels did so? Or some flaky Lib Dems or SNP members? If they have not already, May's whips should "reach out" and discover what the possibilities are. It is how Ted Heath got through his European legislation to go into the European Communities back in 1971-72. He was strongly advised by his whips to offer Tory MPs a free vote - an issue of conscience above party. This gave some moral cover to the band of Labour rebels to break from the official line and abstain or vote with the government; unofficial Labour rebel whips ensured only the minimum number of Labour rebels would act on each vote, and did so on a rota system to reduce the penalties Labour would impose on any individual pro-European MP.

HEATH never lost a vote. A final say referendum would be much the best way out of the quagmire, and May, already prepping public opinion, could take her chances and try to sell it to the public against the Remain option. That would be the best way to proceed, to unite the country and act in the national interest.

If not, then eventually May can return to a vote on her deal - the Commons having eliminated no deal, an early election, a second referendum and any other alternative. Then she can say "there is no alternative".

This second time round MPs on all sides would know that it really is a question of her deal or no deal, because: 1. She says so; 2. Europe says so; and 3. Parliament can't offer an alternative. In such circumstances Labour and other opposition party rebel abstentions (ie pro-deal) should be enough to see her over the line, as her internal critics continue to melt under the realities of the situation. It might even be possible that Corbyn would order his troops to abstain, on the grounds that a future Labour government can clear it all up and start again. (Plus he's actually pro-Brexit anyway.)

None of this will be easy, but the prospects may be brighter for May than seem possible now - just as turned out to be the case for her predecessors Heath and Major. (© Independent News Service)

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