How parliament’s maths adds up for autumn Brexit battles

by Luke Lythgoe | 24.08.2017

This autumn the government must get going on the so-called Repeal Bill to ensure it passes before the Brexit deadline. The Opposition has already said they are not willing to vote it through the Commons in its current form. But can Theresa May’s minority government be forced to change anything? How does the parliamentary mathematics stack up?

Based on how they voted in the referendum, MPs are still overwhelmingly inclined towards Remain. And despite the dramatic election campaign, the numbers have barely changed. Analysis by InFacts found 477 current MPs backed Remain, while 156 backed Leave. It is unclear how the other 17 voted, many of them new Labour MPs in Leave-voting seats who campaigned on a platform of respecting the vote or by ignoring Brexit altogether.

Compare these numbers to the House of Commons before June 8, when there were 486 Remain-voting MPs and 160 Leave voters, with four unknowns.

Even the majority of current Tory MPs (176 to 137) voted Remain in 2016. However, every Conservative and Labour MP has now been elected on a manifesto promising to see through Brexit, albeit in different ways. Therefore the only guaranteed votes against Brexit come from the 35 SNP MPs, 12 Liberal Democrats, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and probably the four Plaid Cymru MPs – a meagre 52 votes in all. Sinn Fein’s seven pro-Remain MPs will not be making a historic appearance in the Commons.

If it stays this way, May’s 318 Tories plus 10 DUP allies will be able to see the Brexit legislation through.

However, there are a lot of MPs in both the main parties who campaigned hard against Brexit and could be expected to defy the government if Brexit starts looking like too much for the country to bear and/or public opinion demonstrably turns against leaving the EU.

For some in the Labour Party this point has already arrived. In June, 50 MPs – including four shadow ministers – defied Jeremy Corbyn and voted for an amendment to the Queen’s Speech demanding membership of the single market.

A number of Conservatives may also be ready to rebel. One of the most vocal pro-European Tories, Anna Soubry, has already written in the Mail on Sunday that “country must always come before party”.

According to recent research by Edelman, 25% of Tory MPs (78 individuals) back a softer form of Brexit. This group is also influential in the government, representing 30% of Cabinet ministers and 44% of junior ministers.

Though far more vocal – particularly via the pro-Brexit press – only 20% of Tory MPs (65) want a harder or “no deal” Brexit. The remaining 55% (174) are considered loyal to the government’s vision as set out in Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech.

The only way pro-European MPs will be able to frustrate and change the government’s Brexit legislation is by forming cross-party alliances. This will have to be on an issue over which the pro-Brexit Labour leadership is willing to vote against the government. The Financial Times has already reported possible amendments and rebellions over issues including membership of the EU’s Open Skies aviation agreement, the customs union and nuclear regulator Euratom. But pro-European Tories may yet hesitate, keen not to hand Jeremy Corbyn a political advantage – or even the keys to Downing Street.

The role of other factions within the party remains unclear. The 12 Scottish Tories, for example, are led by the pro-Remain Ruth Davidson and only one of their number, Ross Thomson, campaigned for Leave. On the other hand, many are MPs for Scotland’s fishing communities and pledged to end the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.

Beyond Westminster, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are also expected to have a say on the Repeal Bill. Neither is happy with its implications for devolution.

Any MPs hoping for time to indulge their pet projects in the next few months may be disappointed. With the customary “pairing” deals between parties failing to get approval over summer, party whips will be making sure every member is present for every crucial vote. For whom the division bell tolls, indeed.

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    Edited by Alan Wheatley

    3 Responses to “How parliament’s maths adds up for autumn Brexit battles”

    • The above analysis shows that something is very seriously wrong with UK’s parliamentary democracy. The majority of MP’s wish to remain in the EU but many will vote against their convictions for party political reasons. To do so is not only morally utterly wrong, it is also to ignore their duty as parliamentarians to uphold the national interest.

      What will be the consequence of all this one hesitates to guess , but clearly it is a betrayal of our parliamentary democracy and indeed the consequences could be serious for UK’s democracy itself .

      • Indeed. We live in a parliamentary democracy…except, it seems, when parliament is called upon to act as a parliamentary democracy.

    • I think the pro-Europe forces have to rally to find common ground to prevent a most destructive Hard Brexit. The point needs to be made time and again that there is no mandate to leave the Single Market or customs union. (There was only one question on the ballot paper). The common ground should be to aim for an arrangement such as Switzerland or Norway’s. Membership of the EEA or EFTA would solve a multitude of the problems and complications which we are being made aware of, almost on a daily basis. Tory MP’s who in their hearts know this will be in the country’s interests would still be able to face their electorate saying they had honoured their commitment to leave the EU, but had decided membership of the EEA or EFTA should be the alternative. If this was still contentious, the final package could be put to the electorate in a second Referendum.