Johnson Might Yet Get Brexit Done: Counting the Votes

Saturday, 19 October 2019 02:24 PM

Boris Johnson was defeated in Parliament on Saturday. But analyzing that vote, and the comments that members of parliament made in the run-up, suggests that the prime minister still has a chance of getting his Brexit deal done.

MPs voted by 322 to 306 to force Johnson to seek an extension -- an insurance policy against a no-deal Brexit if there’s still no agreement by Oct. 31. It deprived Johnson of the chance to test whether there’s support for his deal before pushing the full legislation through parliament.

He needs to persuade 61 Members of Parliament to back his deal. It looks like he has 62, based on what lawmakers said and did both in the debate before today’s vote and during it. Here’s our tally of how many look like they’ll support his deal.

Now for the health warning. This analysis is necessarily imprecise: MPs can and do change their minds. Some are keeping their cards close to their chest.

Here’s how the numbers break down:

Johnson’s Target: 320

Once non-voting MPs are accounted for, Johnson needs 320 MPs on his side to win any vote in the House of Commons.

May’s Baseline: 259

The last time Theresa May tried to get her deal through, in March, she had the support of 279 Conservatives. They are mostly likely to back a Johnson deal too, but there are some problems.

Johnson expelled a group of MPs from the party in September after they backed legislation blocking a no-deal Brexit. They were joined by Amber Rudd, who resigned in sympathy. Also out of the party is Nick Boles, who quit the Conservatives earlier this year in frustration at the Brexit deadlock.

As a result there are question marks against 19 former Tories who previously backed May’s deal. On top of that number, one deal-backing Conservative, Chris Davies, lost his seat to a Liberal Democrat in a recall election.

That leaves Johnson 61 votes short. Where can he go?

‘Gaukeward Squad’: 19

The expelled Tories, who take their name from former Justice Secretary David Gauke, are temperamentally loyalists -- some had never voted against their party before September. Many of them are looking for a way back in -- including Gauke.

In Saturday’s vote, seven of the Gaukeward Squad went against Johnson, but almost all made it clear they were ready to back his deal. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond still seemed uncertain, but Johnson seems to have the vast bulk with him.

Democratic Unionist Party: 10

Johnson worked hard to try to keep Northern Ireland’s DUP engaged, but they have come out firmly against the new deal. They have deep reservations about anything that creates any kind of border between Britain and Northern Ireland, such as customs checks in the Irish Sea, and want a stronger consent mechanism that hands a greater say to the regional assembly.

They seem to have failed in their efforts to persuade Tories to vote against the deal, but on Saturday, they inflicted defeat on Johnson by voting against him, and they look ready to do it again.

The Spartans: 28

The self-titled “Spartans” are Conservative MPs who refused to vote for May’s deal. They chose their name to recall the fearsome Ancient Greek warriors who held off a numerically superior Persian force at the Battle of Thermopylae.

When Johnson became prime minister, the Spartans were adamant they opposed anything but the most minimal Brexit agreement. But in recent weeks they have begun to see the virtues of compromise. This is the result of the Benn Act, legislation that aims to prevent the U.K. leaving on Oct. 31 unless Johnson has reached a deal. It’s made the Spartans fear losing Brexit altogether.

On Saturday, Johnson had the support of all of the Spartans, with their leader Steve Baker offering MPs assurances of their good intentions in an effort to boost support for Johnson. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll all vote for his deal, but the prime minister should be reasonably confident he has their support as long as he doesn’t let his deal get rewritten.

Labour: 31

May pinned her hopes on winning the support of a significant minority of MPs from the opposition Labour Party who believe the 2016 referendum result must be honored. She struggled to get more than five to vote with her, but 15 who didn’t back her last time joined some who did in signing a letter this month urging the EU to do a deal. That might imply a commitment to actually vote for such an agreement.

Against that is the fear of retribution from their party if they do so. Leader Jeremy Corbyn and his team sense that defeating Johnson’s deal is a key step on their route to beating him at an election. Others in the party see defeating a deal as essential to securing another referendum.

A law unto herself is Kate Hoey, a fierce supporter of Brexit but also an MP with Northern Irish roots, who said she’ll oppose the deal. Since Johnson announced his deal, some Labour MPs who previously made pro-Brexit noises have started to come out of the woodwork, so we’ve increased the number of potential Labour votes by 10.

Saturday saw six Labour MPs voting with Johnson, and three more abstaining. He needs more, but at least three more have promised to support his deal.

Independents: 5

Four independent MPs backed May’s deal in March. A fifth, John Woodcock, might also be tempted. He voted with Johnson on Saturday. But Sylvia Hermon, who backed May’s deal, represents a Northern Irish seat and is opposed to Johnson’s deal.

Other MPs: 2

Two possible supporters defy categorization. Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb, who is stepping down at the next election, represents a seat that voted to leave the EU and has been critical of his party’s anti-Brexit stance. On Saturday he said he was against Johnson’s deal. In better news for the prime minister, his brother Jo, an opponent of Brexit, voted with him on Saturday.

The Joker

If it comes to a tie, Speaker John Bercow has a casting vote. It’s not clear how he would exercise it.

© Copyright 2019 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

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