18 Mar 2019

Speaker adds to government Brexit grief

The Speaker has added to the government’s grief when you might’ve thought the pain threshold couldn’t be greater.

He told the Commons that precedent required him to set a high bar for allowing the government to bring back the Brexit divorce which Theresa May is hoping will pass at the third attempt. Commons procedure stipulates that the government can’t bring back the same measure for vote after vote without a substantial change to the measure itself. It’s a provision that’s meant to stop governments pounding away without listening to the legislature’s criticisms.

What will be the effect of the Speaker’s ruling?

We don’t yet know because the government is still digesting it.

It’s important to remember that parts of the government machine always had up its sleeve the idea of trying a fourth attempt after the third attempt. It didn’t advertise the idea but the thinking was that if this week’s vote failed it could try one last time next week.

It might reduce the chances of the government trying to have the third attempt at a meaningful vote this week. Those chances were receding a bit anyway after the weekend ring-round of MPs suggested there was progress but not enough of it. So the third vote attempt might now be delayed until next week. That could give the government the chance to cook up something that amounts to a change to the proposition. The third vote attempt this week always held in reserve the idea that there might be a fourth attempt next week.

It adds to the risk the government can’t call a third vote but doesn’t make that risk insurmountable. Some procedural experts think the government should be able to find a work-round that presents the deal as changed in some way to satisfy the Speaker’s test.

It increases the chances of a high-wire vote that comes just three days or so before the Brexit deadline.

The Prime Minister could come back from Brussels this week with two indicative timetables for a Brexit extension. The short one would apply if the government got its deal passed next week. The long one would apply if they didn’t. It adds to Theresa May’s sticks or threats for Brexiteers who hate the idea of a long extension. That threat will be crystallised in an EU communique this week which could spell out conditions and durations.

It comes after an intensive weekend of phone activity over the weekend as Tory MPs were lobbied to back the PM’s deal whenever it comes to a vote. The Prime Minister was deployed on some of the calls trying to win back rebels. Some sources say she alternated between two main arguments: one, which she has often used in the past, was saying that she didn’t want to feel responsible for anyone losing their job over a “no deal” Brexit; the other warned of how “no deal” could mean violence returns to the streets of Belfast.

Cabinet ministers were deployed to call certain MPs. Everyone was working off tallies of varying reliability. One ERG MP told the government that they wouldn’t get 40 converts in time for a vote this week as things stand. They need more than that.

Some ERG figures say allowing four pro-Remain Cabinet ministers to abstain on a whipped vote created so much bad blood a deal this week has receded as a possibility.

One ERG source told the government they could deliver only 30-something converts to Theresa May if the vote was this week. That was assuming the DUP had been won over. That would leave the Prime Minister needing 25 or so Labour MPs helping her out on the night. Those numbers aren’t there right now. Everyone is looking over their shoulder to see if others will jump with them and their vote would make the difference and get the deal through rather than just buy them a world of pain with opponents of the deal. Now they may have a little longer to ponder that decision.

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