12 Jul 2018

Brexit Policy Published – But Will MPs Ever Back It?

Nearly one hour into Dominic Raab’s statement on the government’s Brexit negotiating strategy a Tory MP got up and did something unusual. Vicky Ford, former MEP, was the first Tory to say anything supportive of the policy. Before her, one after another Tory MP challenged the logic of the approach and attacked it for continuing EU power over UK regulations and Parliament.

The whole thing started with the Speaker demanding that the brand new Secretary of State over-rule his own department’s decision to sit on copies of the White Paper. MPs were getting more and more restless about the fact that they weren’t being allowed to look at copies of the White Paper even though they were sitting in the Commons Vote Office which distributes official documents to MPs. The House was suspended while copies were handed out by MPs to their colleagues.

Mr Raab’s old allies on the Brexit-supporting wing of the Tory Party sounded massively unimpressed by the document, and that’s before the EU27 has turned round and demanded that it be re-written dramatically. Labour’s Chris Bryant said the government needed to address the fact that the White Paper clearly didn’t command a majority in the Commons. That risked the Brexit talks ending in no deal at all, Mr Bryant said. Later on, in reply to Tory pro-Brexit MP Philip Hollobone, Mr Raab said if there was no deal the EU might kiss goodbye to the billions Britain has agreed to pay off covering commitments the UK signed up to as a member. Several Cabinet ministers say that the legal advice to ministers has consistently been that there can be “no conditionality” to the pay-off money. Mr Raab sounded like a man who has walked into the department determined to revisit that.

A few more supportive questions followed Vicky Ford’s, but Chris Bryant’s point stands. It is hard to see how the government gets this through, especially after the EU has layered further demands on it. If there were 60 to 80 Labour MPs to stand in and take the place of the scores of Tories signalling that they are ready to vote against it, the whole thing might stand a chance (though the durability of the government would be under enormous pressure). But pro-EU MPs happy to rebel in support of the EEA amendment recently look unlikely to back Theresa May’s plan in big numbers. The Labour MPs who believe Brexit itself must not be lost (sometimes as few as 2 but with a surge capacity of 15) might feel hesitant in supporting Theresa May. The names on that list include figures like Dennis Skinner and Ronnie Campbell who would not back Theresa May if their votes helped her to cling on to power.

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